Up Front and Personal

Honoring an Irish Priest’s Love For an African American Flock

By Msgr. Paul Jervis

Kudos to the organizers of the Great Irish Fair that took place on Saturday, Sept. 25 in the Coney Island Amphitheatre, for their bestowal of the Father Mychal Judge, O.F.M., honor upon Father Brian P. Dowd.

I would like to recommend that the Great Irish Fair make Msgr. Bernard J. Quinn, Servant of God, the posthumous honoree next year. “Father Quinn,” as he was fondly known to everyone, wholeheartedly embraced the downtrodden lot of African Americans as an Irish American priest.

He was born to immigrant parents, Sarah and Bernard W. Quinn, in Newark, New Jersey, on Jan. 15, 1888. Bernard, their last child, grew up in a happy home with his parents and six siblings — two brothers and four sisters. The Quinn family was devoutly Catholic, poor, and Irish to their bones.

Regrettably, the Archdiocese of Newark was unable to accept him to study for their own priesthood but recommended him enthusiastically to the Diocese of Brooklyn. He was accepted there in 1906 at their Seminary of St. John, located at that time near Bushwick in Brooklyn. There, he was quite prayerful and an avid sportsman. Having a gregarious personality, Bernard was popular among his fellow seminarians.

At his ordination on June 1, 1912, he asserted that his heart was finally sealed with that of his Lord, whom he wanted to love through all the people he would serve in his priestly ministry.

His first church assignments as a curate were of a temporary nature; among them were St. Brigid in Westbury, New York, and St. Patrick’s, Brooklyn. He was assigned to St. Gregory the Great Church in Brooklyn in 1914.

During his four years in the typically white parish, Father Quinn felt drawn to the service of African Americans, being conscious that the diocese overlooked them. He expressed his desire to then-Bishop Charles McDonnell in 1917, but with America’s entrance into the First World War that year, Father Quinn saw that there was a more pressing need — to serve his country as an Army chaplain.

At the end of the war, he restated his interest in ministering to African Americans and received Bishop

McDonnell’s approval in 1920. With the dedication of St. Peter Claver Church for African American Catholics in 1922, Father Quinn laid down his life for his parishioners, telling them that he was willing to shed the last drop of his blood for their salvation and social advancement. As Christ loved them, so he, Father Quinn, wanted to imitate Christ in like manner. Meanwhile, he had also loved his Irish heritage since his youth, and he wanted everyone to know from his adolescent years that he was a proud Irishman.

Having fallen head over heels in a fascination with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, after reading her life story while he was an Army chaplain in France, Father Quinn began a novena to her in 1925 at St. Peter Claver Church. This quickly attracted a great crowd of white Catholics of varying ethnicities, such as people of Italian and Polish descent from parishes throughout the Brooklyn Diocese; people were reporting testimonies of St. Thérèse’s miraculous intercession.

Irish Catholics were a dominant group of novena participants because they felt an affinity with Father Quinn, who understood their joys and sorrows as a fellow Irishman. To them, he was “Barney.”

They rallied to support him when he faced off against the Ku Klux Klan, which violently opposed the founding of his orphanage for black children in Wading River, New York. That facility came into being in 1930 and exists today as The Little Flower Children and Family Services of New York.

At his death on April 7, 1940, Good Shepherd Sunday, Father Quinn, who had shepherded his black flock heroically, was also hailed as a shepherd of Irish Catholics. Recently, Geoffrey Cobb wrote a laudatory account, “Quinn Was ‘Quintessential Priest,’ ” in The Irish Echo.

It is my hope that Irish Catholics will claim Msgr. Quinn as their own and accord him the highest honors at the 2022 Great Irish Fair; we pray he would become a saint who can unite blacks, Irish, and all people of the great mosaic population of Brooklyn, Queens, and all of New York.

Msgr. Paul Jervis is pastor of St. Francis of Assisi-St. Blaise Parish, Crown Heights, and the vice-postulator of Msgr. Quinn’s Cause for Sainthood.