There is far more history in Buffalo than what people can find in books or on the Internet. Velma Holt knows a dark time that most annals would gloss over in favor of a more presentable past.
At 97 years old, the longtime Buffalo resident can recall a time when she was not allowed in a church just a stone's throw from her house because of the color of her skin.
"They had a colored church when I came to Buffalo," Holt said while sitting in her dining room under a giant portrait of Duke Ellington. "I went up to the church on the corner and the priest told me, 'This is a German church. You have to go to the colored church.' I said, 'What colored church?' He said they got St. Peter Claver over on Michigan Avenue. That's where the colored folks go."
"I didn't go. I said, 'Padre, when you raise that host, do you believe?' He said, 'Yes, I believe.' I said, 'Me too, and I'm coming to your church every day, and if you refuse the Communion to me, that's when you and I are going to hell together.'" Then she laughs. "The German folks wouldn't kneel beside me, wouldn't do nothing. I had a hard time in Buffalo with them."
One wouldn't think by looking at this tiny woman, now hard of hearing and with fading memory, that she could stand up to a pastor, but she insists she attended daily Mass until the parish closed. In a turn the other cheek moment, Holt began working at that parish as a cook. At the time, the 1940s, it was not uncommon for priests to hire African-American women as parish housekeepers.
Holt admits there was tension at first in their new working relationship, but on his deathbed, that same priest had Holt come to see him at Buffalo General Hospital to apologize for the way he treated her. Holt went on to cook at several Buffalo city parishes, with a career that spanned 40 years.
Mama Holt, as she is known to all, is now a regular fixture at SS. Columba-Brigid Parish on Buffalo's East Side. Father Roy Herberger, pastor of SS. Columba-Brigid for the past 16 years, calls Holt a woman of "deep, deep faith."
"She would not let prejudices, racism, anything stand between her and her Lord," Father Herberger said. "She was so dedicated for daily Mass. She would concentrate on being an example for others, especially within the African-American community, to encourage them that even if they were in parishes where blacks weren't welcome or got the cold shoulder, that they should persist and not give up. They're there for the Lord, not or other people."
In the mid 1980s, Christ the King Seminary designed a Central City Practicum to allow seminarians to gain field experience and learn the needs of parishioners in Central Buffalo parishes. The program continues today, dealing with themes of hunger, homelessness, criminal justice, immigration and non-violence.
Sister Mary Ellen Twist, RSM, then a field education director for the seminary, met Mama Holt in the mid 1980s. Sister Mary Ellen would bring seminarians to the kitchen table of SS. Columba-Brigid Parish where Holt cooked, to hear the colorful story of her life.
"She would tell us the story about how she raised her family at Sacred Heart Parish," said Sister Mary Ellen. "I was struck, originally, by her first story in that, when she was a young woman, she was not allowed to sit in the pews. She had to sit in the back of the church. By the time we knew her, she had already served as the parish council president of Sacred Heart Parish. That's how much change took place in her lifetime in terms of the acceptance of African-American Catholics."
"I worked 20 some odd years with them," Holt said. "The seminarians would come. They would always send them to the inner city. Then I was their teacher. I taught a whole lot of seminarians. If they were going to be priests, they had to learn to love everybody."
The seminarians themselves requested a special honor to recognize the impact Holt had on their views. In the fall of 1989, Holt received an honorary degree from Christ the King Seminary for providing "wisdom, guidance, care and challenging insights that have played a significant role in forming countless priests."
"We wanted to honor her because she was so instrumental in bringing the heart and spirit of the black culture, the Catholic culture, to the experience of the students," said Sister Mary Ellen.
Holt became the first woman, non-cleric, and person without college training, to receive a doctorate from the seminary.
"She really stood up to the Church, when the Church wanted to deny her what she hungers for, more than many of us think about on a daily basis, communion with God, and to be able to receive Jesus in the Eucharist," said Kathleen Castillo, who now runs the Central City Practicum.
Even before coming to Buffalo with her jazz trumpet-playing husband, Mama Holt had a life deeply centered around the Catholic faith.
Born Velma Peigne in Okmulgee, Okla., the daughter of an African-American mother and a French Catholic father who raised his children in the faith, she attended a Catholic school in Okmulgee, taught by St. Katharine Drexel. She taps her fingers on her dining room table as she struggles a bit to recall the exact year, but remembers she was 7 years old. That would make it second grade, 1925.
She can still recall how the daughter of a wealthy banker came to educate the destitute Native Americans and African-Americans.
"The Drexels from Philadelphia, you know they was rich folks," she said. "Her father would travel with them. They came to Oklahoma and they saw how the Catholics were treating the blacks. So, she went back to Philadelphia and she told the bishop about them, and he told her, 'Well, why don't you be a nun. You can study to be a nun, then you can go to Oklahoma and start teaching those children.' And that's what she did."
St. Katharine founded several schools in the Western region of the United States.
"When we lined up at school she would always touch us on the head and say, 'There's nobody in this world greater than you,'" Holt recalled.
St. Katharine later founded Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, where Holt's son Dale attended. While visiting her son, Holt reunited with her former teacher.
"She was sweet. She knew I was one of her students," she said before trailing off.
Holt has always encouraged her friends to pray for St. Katharine Drexel and Buffalo's own Venerable Nelson H. Baker.
"Save a spot for me up there," she said.
Holt came to Buffalo after marrying jazz musician George Holt, who played venues in New York City and Africa with jazz legends Stan Kenton, Cozy Cole and Jimmie Lunceford, before becoming a regular at Buffalo's own Anchor Bar. George and Velma raised seven children, Constance Cole, Cornelius, George Jr., Lynn, Arthur, Marlon and Dale Holt.
Mary Weisenburger, who worked with Holt as part of the Central City Practicum, recalled how she always used beautiful Lenox china for dinners with her children.
"She told us she always wanted her children to know that they were worth good china and good silverware, that those good things were to be used on a daily basis, not saved for special occasions, because that's was what they were worth," Weisenburger said. "That was one of the ways she tried to instill self worth in her children."
Holt also made sure all her children finished college. George A. Holt Jr., now a restaurateur, served as Erie County legislative representative in the '90s.
Now widowed, with her children and grandchildren spread across the country, Mama Holt can still be found in church on Sunday and special occasions. What caused her to fight against society's norms all those years ago? She thinks for a moment trying to find the right words.
"Oh, honey. Hey, loving my God."