Father Leon Ngandu, SVD, surveys the empty lot next to St. Bartholomew Church in Little Rock. For years the parish has wanted to build a parish hall, but they have not quite raised enough money to get it built.
Instead, the parish meets in its former high school, which closed in 1964. While most of the building is loaned to Helping Hand for the city’s largest food pantry, the parish uses two rooms, kitchen and office to host its religious education classes. Before the pandemic began, pre-K through 12th grade were divided into four groups. Some met in the kitchen while a few others could meet in the office. Sacramental preparation takes place in the rectory/office since there is not enough room.
Major repairs are needed to fix the former school’s cinder-block walls and air conditioning.
“We still use the school, but they are small rooms so when we have (parish) events some people are outside and some people are inside,” the pastor said.
For religious education classes, he said he was concerned because “there is mold, cracks in the wall and the air conditioning is old, noisy and not working properly.”
From September through August 2021, One Church, the diocese’s mission initiative, will be partnering with St. Bartholomew Church to help them raise enough additional money to finally build their Parish Life Center.
The church, which opened in 1903, is one of only three predominantly Black Catholic churches in the state. While the church and rectory were dedicated in 1931, they never had a parish hall. Instead they met in the old high school or outside on the empty lot with a rented tent. For special occasions, they might rent a facility at another church. Parishioners park on the street as the church has no parking lot.
Father Ngandu said the parish has made great strides toward finally getting its own parish hall. At least $620,000 has already been raised or pledged for constructing the planned 5,040-square-foot building. The parish has cut back its plans in order to bring it in under an $800,000 budget, but final figures have not been provided by the contractor. Father Ngandu is working with the Diocese of Little Rock to get final approval from the Building Commission and Finance Council before the groundbreaking date is set.
When the building is finished, the parish will have a church hall for 150 people that can be divided into four rooms for religious education classes. It will also include three offices, a kitchen and conference room.
Judi Kanu, director of religious education, said, “It is harder to build community when you don’t have the space. We are trying to create more programs to further their education outside of Sunday school.”
Father Ngandu is proud of the parish he served as an associate pastor in 2014-2015 and returned to in 2018. He also leads the other predominantly Black Catholic church in Pulaski County, St. Augustine Church in North Little Rock.
Attendance at Masses now is about 25 people, but before the pandemic the church had about 75 to 100 people at the one Sunday morning Mass.
“I love this community,” Father Ngandu said. “They are very active. They love their Church. They contribute to the church and they are involved in church activities. ... In all of Arkansas we just have three predominantly Black Catholic parishes. Out of the three, I am the pastor of two of them. We try to keep this community together. … If St. Bartholomew had a parish hall, it can also help St. Augustine. They can come here (for events).”
The church is located six blocks from Arkansas Children’s Hospital and next to Arkansas Baptist College in the Central High neighborhood. Before the pandemic, the Men’s Club provided a meal to the neighbors every month. They also have a large school supply giveaway each fall to support neighborhood families.
Sonya Hart, a lifelong member and Building Committee chairwoman, said the parish has been saving for more than 20 years and is excited to finally have a Parish Life Center. She believes the new building will allow the parish to offer faith formation to its members and serve the neighborhood children with after-school programs.
“We don’t have adequate facilities to do that,” she said. “Another gentleman would like to work with at-risk youth, trying to keep them off the street. We are smack in the middle of the area where kids need help with tutoring and staying off the streets.”
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