Black History Liturgy Celebrates Church Unity (slide show)

by Marie Elena Giossi

Representing various backgrounds, dialects, parishes and ministries, local black Catholics converged on Our Lady of Light parish, St. Albans, for the 32nd annual diocesan Black History Month Mass of thanksgiving last Sunday, Feb. 19.

Song, dance, prayer and praise were among the ways hundreds of black Catholics from parishes throughout Brooklyn and Queens participated in the diocesan Black History Month Mass of thanksgiving at Our Lady of Light parish, St. Albans, Feb. 19.

Sponsored by the diocesan Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns (VBCC), this year’s celebration focused upon the history, contributions and diversity of the black American family under the theme, “We Are the Church.”

“This Mass helps us understand our tradition and where we come from,” said seminarian Dwayne Davis, master of ceremonies.

“I can’t think of a better way to celebrate our heritage … all of us, together as one body, united to celebrate our gift of being black and Catholic,” he said.

Haitian-born retired Auxiliary Bishop Guy Sansaricq, VBCC vicar, was the main celebrant and homilist. Concelebrants included Father William Smith, pastor, and Father Caleb Buchanan, vicariate coordinator. Several altar servers, seminarians and deacons assisted on the altar.

Several hundred Queens and Brooklyn residents filled the pews of Our Lady of Light’s worship site at St. Catherine of Sienna Church just before 4 p.m.

Catherine Spivey, longtime parishioner of St. Gregory the Great Church, Crown Heights, arrived on a chartered bus with parishioners and others from Brooklyn parishes. Spivey said she wanted to join together with fellow brothers and sisters in the faith “to praise God as a people, to show we know He has been and is with us at all times.”

Also among the crowd was Msgr. Paul Jervis, pastor of St. Martin de Porres parish, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and postulator of the canonization cause for Msgr. Bernard J. Quinn, who began the diocesan apostolate to black Catholics.

Looking upon the diverse congregation, which was comprised of African-American, Caribbean, Afro-Latin and American black Catholics, some wearing native garb, Bishop Sansaricq announced to the faithful, “we are all one.”

One Nature and Likeness

“We come from all over but we all share one nature and likeness in God,” he said.

Thumping on African drums while praise dancers gave reverent expression to the Spirit’s movement within, youth from Our Lady of Charity, Weeksville, called the congregation to worship.

Highlighting the theme, a procession featuring members of more than 40 organizations and ministries in which black Catholics participate in Brooklyn and Queens parishes opened the Mass. Following the presentation, the vicariate choirs, under the direction of Kenneth St. Bernard, led a stirring rendition of the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”

Powerful hymns raised by the choirs of the Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns, under the direction of Kenneth St. Bernard, vicariate music director, enhanced the diocesan celebration of Black History Month Feb. 19.

“Sometimes people forget that they are the church. They need to feel proud of who they are and what they do here,” explained Georgeann Campbell, vicariate chairwoman, who oversaw the celebration.

“We want to help people have a sense of pride and ownership in their church,” she said.

That is why Christine Almonte supports her daughter’s praise dancing, which was featured at Mass. She wants the teen to grow in the church and understand she has a place there. “This brings her closer to God, to believe in Him and praise Him,” Almonte said.

Embrace Ancestors’ Values

Faith, persistence, resilience and courage were four values Bishop Sansaricq discussed in his homily. He told the members of the congregation to remember and appreciate their ancestors’ trials and tribulations. However, he cautioned against lamenting over the past, suggesting instead that the faithful learn to embrace the aforementioned values that sustained their forebears.

He expressed disappointment in the decline of faith, solidarity and education in today’s world, advising youth and adults alike to overcome sin and strengthen their resolve for growth as individuals and within the church family.

He suggested Ash Wednesday as a starting point and encouraged participation in this summer’s Kujenga Youth Leadership Program and the National Black Catholic Congress as steps toward developing a better future.

“As Catholics and African-Americans and individuals, we need to wake up, retrieve our faith in God, seek inner strength and virtue, and develop a spirit of sacrifice,” he said.

The bishop’s words made an impact on Our Lady of Light parishioner Claudette Pestano, a Guyanese native. “It makes me more conscious … that we should be the light that leads the younger generation,” she said, adding that mothers, in particular, must set a good example and teach their children the value of respect.