Photo by Alan M. Dumoff
A bust of Mother Lewis at St. Monica Parish, Atlantic City, is inscribed with the words “Founder of St. Monica’s R.C. Church.”
As a leader for African-American Catholics in the early part of the 20th century, Emma “Mother” Lewis helped the community find a place to worship away from discrimination. Helping to establish St. Monica’s Mission (now Parish) in Atlantic City in 1917, she is remembered today as an inspiring figure in the Camden Diocese in bringing the Catholic faith and hope to African-Americans in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Not much is known of Emma Lewis’ early years. She was born to Baptist parents in Galvalease, Ohio, in September 1868. In 1905, she left a troubled marriage in her hometown and went to Pittsburgh where she sent her young daughter to a Catholic school, founded by Mother Katherine Drexel.
Soon after, she moved to Philadelphia, settling in the city’s northern section, and she established a Sunday school for neighborhood children. Later, she began educating adults as well, who were attracted to her religious work.
Lewis’ religious zeal came to the attention of Philadelphia Archbishop Patrick Ryan, who gave her a large crucifix, a gift from Pope Pius X, in appreciation of her work with the African-American community in Philadelphia. While working in the city, she became affectionately known as “Mother” Lewis, a name which stuck with her for the rest of her life.
Renting a small house on 11 North Delaware Ave. in Atlantic City, she began a community where African-Americans would feel welcome, and the space was named St. Monica Mission, after the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo. On Feb. 8, 1917, the mission was started under the administration of the Augustinian Fathers at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church.
In 1921, with ever-increasing followers, the original mission space became too small and the community moved to the present site of St. Monica’s rectory. One month after St. Monica Church was moved, Mother Lewis became ill. She died on Dec. 11, 1921 at the age of 53.
In January 1929, Bishop Bartholomew J. Eustace declared St. Monica a church, and the current building was constructed in 1949.
Today, the Atlantic City church not only serves African-Americans, but Anglo-Saxon, Hispanic, Liberian, Nigerian, Haitian and Filipino Catholics. St. Monica’s has become a multi-cultural community, representative of the passionate faith in diverse individuals.
In honor of its founder, St. Monica has a bust of Mother Lewis in its Memorial Park.
Mother Lewis is buried in Pleasantville. At her grave is an Irish Cross and the words, “Foundress of St. Monica’s Mission.”
Researched by Peter G. Sánchez and James A. McBride