US Catholic Faith in Real Life

USC Book Club: From the Back of the Pews to the Head of the Class

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October 2013:

From the Back of the Pews to the Head of the Class

Compiled by Robert McClory

Review: For black Catholics living in the segregated South, prejudice and persecution were a way of life—sometimes even in their own church. Thankfully for young African Americans in Mobile, Alabama, there was Heart of Mary, a Catholic high school whose faculty of white nuns challenged students to overcome racial barriers and armed them with the tools to make amazing progress in their lives. 

From the Back of the Pews to the Head of the Class recounts the school’s inspiring story in the words of the students themselves, never sugarcoating the ugly truth of racism while highlighting their incredible story of triumph. In the worst of times, Heart of Mary showcased the church at its best; more than four decades after its closing, it still has a lot to teach us.

—Scott Alessi, Managing Editor, U.S. Catholic

ACTA Publications says: Based on hundreds of interviews with students, parents, teachers, sisters, and priests, this book documents the moving and dramatic stories of a segregated Catholic school during a period of revolutionary social change in both the USA and the Church.

Paperback: $14.95

Available at bookstores or from ACTA Publications: 1-800-397-2282 or shop online at

Order now from ACTA Publications.

General Book Club guidelines


Questions for Discussion

1. Remembering Dora Finley

“You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.”  In what ways was that true for Dora?  In what ways is that true for you?

Dora says she came along in a “special time.”  How was it special? What makes the times you live in special for you?

Why do you think developing the Heritage Trail was important to Dora? What “Heritage Trail” would you like to develop today?

2. A Solid Cornerstone: The Earlier Years

Heart of Mary’s High School was segregated from 1917 until it closed in 1968.  The all-white Convent of Mercy also closed that year.  What causes institutions to outlive their mission or purpose?

William says, “HOM was a commandment-keeping place.”  What does that mean? Give an example of a “commandment-keeping place” you know. Describe it.

What do you think created the “family spirit” at HOM? Name some organizations you try to do the same for. What has caused your frustrations and successes?

3. Life with Jim Crow

Young Marion learns what a young black male must do and say to remain safe in a segregated, racist society.  How did the lessons he learned resonate with events in our society today? Give some examples from the news and from your own life, if you can.

The young alums describe “aha” moments in their lives that shaped their thinking regarding their relationships with whites.  What were several of these aha moments for them? Have you ever had similar moments? Describe.

Despite some very hateful encounters with whites that the young HOM students experienced, they didn’t come to the conclusion that all white people were bad.  Why do you think this happened?

4. Pulling together Family and Community

Family life was very important in the black community of Mobile. How was this exhibited?  How did nuclear and extended black families survive in the segregated South? How are they surviving today?

What influence do you think strong family life has in the future direction taken by students? Why? Give some examples from your own life.

Why do you think there were so many strong Catholic black parishes at a time when the Church itself was segregated? Is there still segregation going on in your parish or neighborhood or workplace today? Describe.

5. An inside View: Marion Lewis, Class of 1965

Marion describes the sacrifices his family made to send his brothers and sisters to HOM.  Do families today value Catholic education as they did years ago? Why or why not? Be specific.

Marion describes several justice and civil rights issues of the time. How did HOM help him and the other students confront these issues? What are the civil rights issues of our time? Is the Church helping people face them? Give examples.

The Mobile garbage dump was in the heart of the Black community and only blocks away from HOM. Was this a coincidence? Why or why not? Give similar examples of poor communities being “dumped on” in your town or city.

6. Inside the School: Harold DuCloux, Class of 1966 and Joyce Cassino, Class of 1967

Harold spoke of the “Midwest paradigm” of education.  What did he mean? What are the current paradigms for education?

HOM campus was compared to a safe island; yet it was important that the students were allowed to explore off the island.  In what ways were both things true? Are there any examples of this tension in your community? Describe.

Why was Catholic Church segregation so hard to understand or accept then? What are things in the Catholic Church that are hard to understand or accept now?

7. An Inside View: Pamela Hutchinson Class of 1968

Pamela says that HOM is “part of who I am…part of my roots.”  What do you think contributed to her feeling that way? Name some places or organizations that are part of who you are, part of your roots.

In what ways was it important to Pam and other HOM students that they be successful when they competed with students from the white schools? Do you think that competition is a good or a bad thing? Explain your answer.

Pam says, “The village had been raising kids where I came from.” What do you think she meant? Have you seen or heard of an example of a village raising kids? Describe it.

8. The Staff: Raising Expectations

This chapter describes some of the feelings and experiences of three sisters and a priest who taught at HOM. What are some of the similarities in their stories? Have you ever been involved in something as intense as this? Tell what happened.

What surprised you in these accounts of raising expectations? Why? How to they relate to expectations of your or your expectations of others?

How were the sisters and priest helped to understand and cope with a very different culture? How have you done the same? Who helped you?

9 Unexpected Events: Stories from Heart of Mary

Why do you think Paulette, a young girl from Mississippi, board in Alabama so that she could attend HOM? Do you think it was a good decision for her and her family? Have you ever had to make a similar decision? What happened?

What impact did “tough love” have on Milton, Gary, and Leonard? Do you like the idea of “tough love”? Have you ever used it in your life or had it used on you? Share what you can about it.

The different skin colors of African Americans allowed them to differentiate and even discriminate against one another. What outward signs are used by people today to do the same thing?

10. Archbishop Thomas J. Toolen: Painful Memories

Many black Catholics in the book described themselves as Catholic in spite of the Church.  What do you think they meant? Have you ever felt this way about the Church or any other institution? Tell the story if you are willing.

What do you think of the ways students at HOM vent their displeasure and hurt at the discriminatory actions of the Bishop? Would you have done the same? Why or why not?

Do you think Alexis achieved peace between her faith and the Church? Why or why not? Is there someone who is struggling to do the same thing right now whom you might help? Will you try to do so? Why or why not?

11. Desegregation: The Unraveling Begins 1964-1967

Why did the civil rights movement come so late to Mobile, Alabama? Where have other movements for justice taken time to take hold? Why do you think this was or continues to be true?

Was the decision to close HOM high school the correct one at the time? Why or why not? Is there a place for special places or programs for disadvantaged youth in contemporary society? Explain your answer.

What special problems did those who were among the first to integrate the white diocesan high schools face?  How do you feel they handled the transition? Are there similar situations going on today? What are they? How should they be handled?

12. A Time of Upheaval: The Movement in Mobile, 1968

Why do you think the black clergy and black churches refuse to accommodate the black organization known as Neighborhood Organized Workers? Did HOM do the right thing by doing so? Explain why you feel that way. Are there similar situations in your community today? How do you feel about those?

Are you impressed with the role HOM played in the civil rights movement in Mobile? Explain why? What would you like schools and churches to be doing today? Be specific.

Besides the HOM priests, administrators, teachers, parents, and students, what other characters in the book struck you? Why?

13. Climax: Protests and Arrests, 1969

What do you think of the NOW organization’s decision to  target the Junior Miss Pageant as an event to picket? Explain your answer.

The people who came to support the picketers were arrested. Was this right? Why or why not? Have you ever been arrested? Why or why not?

What is the difference in your mind between violent and nonviolent protest? Does it matter who starts the violence? Is violence ever justified? When, and why? If not, what are non-violent protestors to do in the face of violence threatened or acted out against them?

14. Integration: Fact or Fiction?

Do you think there was positive value in Harold’s saving the “Colored Only” and “White Only” signs? What is that value? Have you ever done anything similar? Please share.

How do you react to Lamar saying, “To me integration was the worst thing that ever happened to the black schools.” What are similar statements today that make you think or react?

Sheila said “We still have to deal with the legacy of race.” What do you think she means by “legacy of race”? How do you think it should be “dealt with” today?

15. Great Expectations: The Legacy of a School

How did the sisters transform the lives of the students at HOM? How did the people of HOM transform the lives of the sisters? What needs to be transformed your life? How can it be done?

Great expectations made a difference in the students of HOM. What expectations of you have made a difference in your life? What expectations do you have for others that need to be articulated and acted upon?

Father John says, “You have to keep retelling the story.”  He goes on to say, “It would have to be created in a new way at a new time and under new circumstances” What does this mean to you, and why?