Kentucky church seeks social justice

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Emblazoned on the centennial seal of St. William Catholic Church here are the apt words, “A Peacemaking Community.” Peace and justice are paramount for the congregation and its pastoral administrator, Sharan Benton.

Signs saying “Support Our Troops: Bring Them Home” hang outside. Folding chairs in a semicircle have replaced the pews.

In the 1940s and 1950s, only signs for bingo, fish fries and summer picnics hung in the churchyard. Things started to change in 1962. The church’s elementary school closed and the Sisters of Mercy left the parish.

Industry encroached on the neighborhood. St. William shrank to 85 parishioners. The archdiocese considered closure when it sent in a new priest, Ben O’Connor.

Rev. O’Connor implemented Vatican II, a more liberal church theology, making St. William the first parish in Louisville to do so. St. William experienced a renaissance. The church connected to the needs of the poor and oppressed with low-cost housing programs and other initiatives. Parishioners supported the movement to end the Vietnam War, including sending a letter to the bishops condemning the war.

Through the 1970s and 1980s the parish adopted a “Peacemaking Covenant” and fought against nuclear arms, declaring the church grounds a “Nuclear-Free Zone.” In 1983, the church became part of the sanctuary movement, illegally providing safe haven to Central American refugees fleeing persecution from U.S.-supported repressive governments.

That spirit has continued. St. William welcomes gay and lesbian members, supports Hunger Walk, AIDS Walk, and various neighborhood social programs. Meetings on the Middle East and candlelight vigils against the Iraq war are a church staple.

St. William lives up to its mission statement, which says, “We commit ourselves and our resources to serve the poor and oppressed far and near and to eliminate the causes of violence and injustice.”

The authors can be reached at pww@pww.org.