Father Michael Trail shared his origin story with the parishioners of St. Martin de Porres, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Feb. 11 during the parish’s Black History Month celebration.
“I’m half-black, half Puerto Rican,” he said. “We’re saucy by nature.”
Father Trail said understanding one’s own past gives context to the present and hope for the future. He said he knows that the “saucy nature” present in his family comes from a difficult past, one marked by slavery on each side. He can trace his roots back to the plantations of Kentucky and the sugar canes of Puerto Rico.
The guest homilist from the Archdiocese of Chicago, Ill., spoke these words at St. Peter Claver Church, now a worship site of St. Martin de Porres.
St. Peter Claver Church was built under the director of its first pastor Msgr. Bernard Quinn, by and for the local black Catholic community, who were not welcomed in the predominantly white neighboring parishes.
Father Trail compared the struggle of Black Americans to that of those afflicted with leprosy in the Old Testament.
Referencing the day’s reading from Leviticus, Father Trail explained that for countless generations anyone afflicted with Leprosy had to shout: “Unclean, unclean!” That was the norm and the only reality they could ever know. That is until Jesus came and touched humanity with His Saving Grace.
In a similar fashion, black people have been called unclean. They were told to sit in the back of the bus and use a different water fountain. And Jesus with the same gaze of love worked miracles.
“Look at your family history,” Father Trail said. “God brings us out of the storm. God is with us in our mess and He brings us through. You cannot help but praise Him.”
Therefore he urged all present to keep on fighting, to be strong and to have faith. After all, it’s thanks to his forefathers’ strength that he could now be speaking to them as an ordained priest.
At the end of Mass Father Daniel Kingsley, parochial vicar, thanked Father Trail for joining St. Martin de Porres for the parish’s Black History Month Mass.
Father Kingsley said he read articles written by Father Trail and was deeply impressed by the priest. Deciding that the worst thing he could say was no, Father Kingsley contacted Father Trail in Chicago.
Father Trail accepted the invitation and thanked the community for welcoming him.
Irma Elis, who settled in the parish when she immigrated to the U.S. in 1978, said she never left the parish in part because of the welcoming nature of its people of the parish.
She attends the parish’s Black History Month Mass every year to honor her the parish history and gain inspiration. She especially wants to pay tribute to Msgr. Quinn who brought the community together in the 1920s and is being considered for canonization to sainthood.
The Bricks of St. Peter Claver
Violet Chandler’s grandmother, Mary Chandler, was among those first parishioners who worked with Msgr. Quinn. A convert to Catholicism, she did not have a house of worship in the neighborhood that would welcome her. So she worked to raise funds for the bricks that would become St. Peter Claver Church. Violet smiles at the thought of her grandmother in a kimono selling tea at Japanese tea party fundraisers.
The Chandlers made St. Peter Claver their home and its people their family. The children went to the parochial school and learned that there was no real distinction between family and the parish community.
Violet Chandler said that its people like Irma Elis that keep her bound to the parish. The pull of family is just too strong.
Music Unites The Parish
It is a family that Joey P. Murray, the parochial associate music director, has been welcomed to with open arms. Murray, of African decent, was adopted by first-generation Irish-Catholic parents. It is them who instilled a love of the Church in their son.
Having grown up honoring Irish culture, Murray is now discovering his African-American ancestry in new ways. This was the first Black History Month Mass he has ever ministered at and he was deeply moved.
He was thankful to be able to help bring to life the songs from “Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal.”
Father Alonzo Cox, pastor, said the parish invests in its music program because its helps bring God to people.
Personally Father Cox experienced the power of spirituals from his grandmother who brought her love of Christian music from the South to Brooklyn with her.
“She was able to feel the presence of Christ,” Father Cox said.
And so he wants to make sure his parishioners have the same opportunity. He said that when a congregation, in love with Jesus, sings these hymnals, Jesus is present and can be felt in the words, in the rhythm and in movement. This is especially true in the context of the Eucharist, he said.
Father Cox said it is important to share these practices with younger generations so that they may learn from their elders.
He added that it is also important for young black people to know their history, as painful as it may be, so that they can focus on the future, in order to learn that Jesus radiates His mercy and love upon them.