SOUTH JAMAICA — It has the name of a candidate for sainthood, and now, once again, the voices that carry the Sister Thea Bowman Mass Choir’s gospel tunes are based in the Diocese of Brooklyn.
After spending 26 years in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, the choir — touted by founder-director Darcel Wilamowski as the first Catholic gospel choir in the U.S. — is returning to its Diocese of Brooklyn roots.
Wilamowski, who served as coordinator for the Office of Multicultural Diversity for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, previously directed the choir from there.
Since she has moved from that job, the choir needed a new headquarters. A former host in Queens — St. Bonaventure- St. Benedict the Moor in South Jamaica — offered to be its home again.
It now has about 50 singers, but Wilamowski wants to see it grow to around 150, like in its earlier days in the Diocese of Brooklyn. She said that people of all ages and from parishes throughout the diocese and beyond are welcome to join.
“We need more tenors and basses,” Wilamowski said. “But this choir is open to everyone who loves the Lord and loves to praise and worship. All you gotta do is carry a tune, and I will take care of the rest with my little staff.”
These days, the choir, formed 37 years ago, wears traditional African attire. Its members sing gospel in the style of Sister Thea Bowman (1937-1990), who attended the choir’s debut in 1986 at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston.
However, the choir did not always wear traditional African attire, nor was it always named for Sister Thea. Its story tracks the history of black Catholics in the Church in the 20th and 21st centuries, Wilamowski said.
She was raised Catholic but grew up with cousins who attended Protestant churches, where her family often visited. The praise and worship there included lively and spirit-filled gospel music.
“I just couldn’t understand why the Church — my Church — couldn’t be more like that,” she recalled. “This thing was placed on my heart.”
Then, in the early 1980s, her parish, Christ the King in Springfield Gardens, sent her and her husband, Alex, her accompanist, to a conference in Texas, where they learned how to incorporate gospel music into the Catholic liturgy.
Next, Father Coman Brady asked Wilamowski to start a youth choir at his parish, St. Vincent Ferrer, in East Flatbush.
Its first name was Sounds in the Spirit of Praise Brooklyn Diocesan Gospel Choir. The 1986 debut mentioned above was for a feast of All Saints celebration in Douglaston.
A television broadcast of the event showed Sister Thea moving her feet in dance and joining in the worship.
Sister Thea, as an evangelist, made several visits to the Diocese of Brooklyn, including a revival at St. Vincent Ferrer, before her death from breast cancer in 1990. Before she departed the revival, she had some last words for Wilamowski.
“She said, ‘Promise me that you will continue this work,’” Wilamowski said. “And that’s why this choir is almost 37 years old.”
In 1992, the Brooklyn Office of Black Ministry’s adult choir merged with the Sounds in the Spirit of Praise. Next came the name change to honor Sister Thea, with permission from her community, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.
“Now that Sister Thea is a Servant of God and on the road to canonization, everything that we do, I feel, is reflected upon that,” Wilamowski said.
She described the choir’s development as the work of the Holy Spirit, who placed the right people together at the right time.
The choir enjoyed the support of another host parish, St. Bonaventure-St. Benedict the Moor, before it was invited to move to the Diocese of Rockville Centre in 1998.
Father Alonzo Cox, a longtime fan of the choir, is pastor of St. Martin de Porres Parish in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and director of the Office of Diocesan Liturgy.
He is also vicar for the Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns and has worked with Wilamowski on various cultural projects. He’s excited to welcome the choir back to Brooklyn and Queens.
“We’ve got some great musical talent within our parishes,” Father Cox said. “If we can put all of our resources together, we will show groups that exemplify and solidify who we are as Black Catholics.
“That’s always a beautiful and wonderful thing.”
Wilamowski said membership isn’t only for singers in the diocese. Nearly everyone in the choir typically sings in their home parish choirs; some are ministers of music, she noted.
Devin Olivas, for example, is the music director at St. Bonaventure-St. Benedict the Moor. He was a grade-school kid at the parish when Wilamowski directed him in the choir there.
This parish’s new pastor is Father Chris Piasta, whose installation was on Oct. 22. He previously pastored a neighboring parish, St. Joseph, also in Jamaica, that serves two communities — Polish Catholics and those from Africa and the Caribbean.
“Of course, music is at the very core of their experience,” Father Piasta said of his Caribbean and African parishioners. “They’re literally dancing while attending the Mass.”
Father Piasta said he is overjoyed to be the new pastor at his parish as it becomes the new base for the Thea Bowman Mass Choir.
He is especially proud that his musical director and several singers from the parish choir are involved with the Thea Bowman Mass Choir.
He also noted its presence fortifies a courageous Black Catholic movement struggling to build momentum in southeast Queens.
“And that is really, really good,” Father Piasta said.
Wilamowski said she is delighted to bring the choir back to Jamaica because of Father Piasta’s reputation for helping Black Catholics build worship opportunities at St. Joseph.
“I heard something that I always look for — that he is a man of God and a man of the people,” she said. “It was like the Holy Spirit was doing it all over again.”
For information on joining the Thea Bowman Mass Choir, contact Darcel Wilamowski at firstname.lastname@example.org.