By Msgr. Paul W. Jervis
On the evening of June 18, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio will be presiding at a vespers in the chapel of Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston, during which he will accept the findings of the diocesan investigation for the cause of the canonization of Msgr. Bernard John Quinn, who felt more comfortable when he was called “Father.” Subsequently, all the documents of the cause will be presented to the Vatican for its review, toward hopefully a judgment for his canonization at the appropriate time.
I had heard about Msgr. Quinn’s saintly reputation from the people of St. Peter Claver Church, where I was assigned as a parochial vicar soon after my ordination in 1983, but what seized my admiration of him were his words from his first pastoral letter to his parishioners in which he told them that “he was willing to shed the last drop of his life’s blood for the least among them.” Those words drove me in hot pursuit to find out for myself everything I could about his awesome, sacrificial love.
The adage “nemp potest dare quod habet,” meaning you can’t give what you do not have, provides an explanation of why Msgr. Quinn’s life was so oriented toward the sacrificial love of others. That became possible because he himself was greatly loved by his family, from his birth on Jan. 15, 1888 in Newark, N.J.
It was a propitious day for his birth, being on the same day that Peter Claver, who championed the rights of African slaves was canonized in Rome.
The last of seven children, Bernard was cherished and loved passionately by his parents, Bernard W. and Sarah Quinn, and by his siblings. They were an Irish immigrant family. Though quite poor, they were happy with each other and devotedly attached to their Catholic faith.
Having being taught that Jesus loved him by the nun who taught his catechism class when he was in the early grades of parochial school, Bernard believed that he could love Jesus as his best friend. Nevertheless, he was a normal boy who loved baseball and had quite a number of friends because of his outgoing, friendly personality.
Coming under the good influence of his parish priests, Bernard pursued the priestly vocation so that he could love his Lord who had loved him so much.
As he grew in his adolescent years, he became aware of how Irish immigrants suffered discrimination in America but also became conscious that African-Americans suffered the greatest injustices. He thereby nurtured an empathetic feeling in his heart for them.
I was flabbergasted at discovering that Bernard as a young college man befriended black children and took photos of them, which he inserted into a family album with photos of his immediate family and relatives. It is amazing that Bernard felt that these black children should have a choice place in his family album, and certainly in his heart, which reached out to them.
It was a blessing for the Brooklyn Diocese when the Newark Archdiocese, unable to have Bernard admitted to a seminary, recommended him with flying colors to the Brooklyn Diocese, which accepted him in 1906 at St. John’s Seminary, then run by the Vincentian Priests, to study for the diocesan priesthood.
He was an above-average student and excelled in sports. With his joie de vivre, Bernard won many friends among the seminarians but sought daily in his personal prayer to grow closer in his own friendship with Jesus.
Bernard’s ordination to the priesthood on June 1, 1912, on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, in St. John the Baptist Church in Brooklyn, was as he described an experience of indescribable joy in which his heart was sealed to that of the Lord’s. From his ordination onward, Msgr. Quinn’s priestly spirituality would be nurtured in his devotion to the Sacred Heart from which he strived to conform his heart to what the Lord desired for him.
His assignments at St. Brigid’s Church in Westbury, L.I., followed after by an administrative stint in Corpus Christi Church in Mineola, L.I., and then to St. Patrick’s Church in Bay Ridge, were of temporary durations.
From the beginning of his priesthood, he, however, got into a lifelong habit of daily meditation before the Blessed Sacrament and the recitation of the rosary, the breviary and the Stations of the Cross during Lent. These all helped him to grow in his love of the Lord.
His celebration of daily Mass disposed him to offer his own priestly sacrifices from the mundane to the more demanding, in imitation of the Lord’s sacrifice.
Inspiration at St. Gregory’s
The young priest zealously fulfilled his priestly duties with love for his parishioners. At his assignment to St. Gregory’s Church in Brooklyn, Msgr. Quinn’s priestly ministry took roots from 1914 to 1917. He was delighted by two black women who sought baptism and membership at the predominantly white parish.
Having received the pastor’s permission to prepare them to join it, he threw himself head on into the task, which whet his appetite for the harvest from their race that the Lord had intended for him.
In 1917, Bishop Charles McDonnell made an appeal to the priests of the diocese to think about offering their priestly services in the Southern states where missionary work was needed for the growth of the infantile Catholic faith in that predominantly Protestant region of the country.
While Msgr. Quinn was moved by the bishop’s appeal, it also occurred to him that there was as much urgency for the diocese to begin missionary work among blacks where they were neglected with no outreach to them.
Having prayed for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Msgr. Quinn followed his heart and wrote a letter to Bishop McDonnell asking his permission to begin a mission to the blacks of the diocese.
The bishop, who evidently backtracked on his recruitment of priests for the Southern missions, told Msgr. Quinn that the greatest challenge facing him at the outset of America’s entrance into the First World War was to get priests to volunteer as chaplains for the U.S. soldiers.
Msgr. Quinn immediately volunteered, probably believing that if his desire to work as a priest among blacks was divinely inspired, then it would happen accordingly. He was assigned at the tail end of the war as a chaplain to the American forces fighting in Normandy, France. There, he had an encounter with St. Therese of Lisieux, from reading her biography in the library of his army barracks during a respite from the battlefield.
She seemed to have come right out of the pages of the book, to reveal the simplicity of her little way of spiritual childhood, which affirmed Msgr. Quinn’s own spiritual simplicity. He became the first priest to celebrate Mass in the home of her birth in Alençon, and she repaid him in kind by accompanying him back to Brooklyn with her spiritual presence, to be with him when he received permission in 1920 to begin his apostolate to the blacks of the diocese.
The Catholics among them were arriving in the 19th century into Brooklyn from the South and from the French, Dutch and English Caribbean islands. They found themselves to be invisible to the diocese and organized themselves into a club of about 25 persons in 1915, calling themselves the “Colored Catholic Club.”
Their sole purpose was in trying to prevail over the diocese to appoint a priest who would shepherd them. With their entreaties falling on deaf ears, the club disbanded in 1917, but Msgr. Quinn reorganized their group and together they went about raising funds for the establishment of their church.
A Black Parish
After purchasing a dilapidated, former medium-sized Protestant church, Msgr. Quinn had the building restored and dedicated to St. Peter Claver by Bishop McDonnell on Feb. 26, 1922.
On June 1, 1922, the Feast of the Sacred Heart, Msgr. Quinn in a pastoral letter laid out to his parishioners how much he was going to love them, to the shedding of the last drop of his life’s blood, because he was on fire with love for them.
He thus launched his ministry to African-Americans with a fiery blast of love that was ignited from his love of Jesus, expressed in his devotion to the Sacred Heart. His celebration of this annual feast renewed the fervency of his love for Jesus and the people who were entrusted to his pastoral care.
Msgr. Quinn’s love resulted in overflowing blessings in his ministry. Beginning his parish with just under 200 members, their numbers grew to 4,800 by 1938 as a result of his evangelization efforts in welcoming blacks at the church where he conducted instruction classes for them on the Catholic faith.
He also did all that he could to give relief to those who suffered from poverty, with the assistance of the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society. Adamantly opposed to the status quo of racial discriminatory practices against blacks, Msgr. Quinn pleaded with city officials, the private sector and public institutions to provide educational and employment opportunities to his people, as well as support their rights to better housing.
Msgr. Quinn could not separate his sacramental ministry from the social and political realities that denied to people on account of their race or immigrant status the opportunities to enjoy the fullness of life as the Lord willed for all humanity.
Novenas to St. Therese
St. Therese of Lisieux was intimately involved with Msgr. Quinn’s ministry.
With her canonization on May 17, 1925, he began a commemorative novena to her at the parish, which people wanted to continue after the event was over. Agreeing to their desires, Msgr. Quinn made the novena a perpetual experience at the church.
People attending it claimed her intercession for jobs, healing from illness, solutions to their problems and spiritual conversion. As word spread about her miraculous deeds done to people attending the weekly, Monday novena at St. Peter Claver Church, white Catholics from most parishes of the diocese went there in bulging crowds, as many as 10,000 attending a total of nine services.
St. Peter Claver Church thus became a meeting ground where white Catholics encountered blacks and discovered that they all had a common humanity with the same human problems and were all in need of the intercession of St. Therese and the pastoral care of Msgr. Quinn. His heart was moved with compassion to the white Catholics for the misfortunes and sufferings of their lives.
It became distressing to Msgr. Quinn that with the worsening economic climate in the late 1920s, it was becoming more difficult for black parents to care adequately for their children and felt that they had no other option but to have them adopted.
As public orphanages became crowded and Catholic institutions at that time did not accept black children, Msgr. Quinn was almost brought to tears as people told him that they could not keep their children to starve. Inevitably he made the decision to start an orphanage for black children and raised the money easily from the thousands of novena devotees.
Trouble on Long Island
Buying a huge farm property in 1928 on an idyllic, forested hillside plain, overlooking the Long Island Sound at Wading River in Suffolk County, he repaired and extended the farmhouse to begin his orphan home. The community there was violently opposed to the home and recruited the KKK, which burnt it to the ground.
Msgr. Quinn was fearless and quickly built another structure. His boldness incensed the KKK, which boiled over with rage and burnt that too to ashes. Putting his life on the line for the rights of the black children to live where New York state had given him approval, Msgr. Quinn was ready to make good on his pledge to shed the last drop of his life blood for the least among his people.
He was more needed to be alive to continue his mission for the Lord rather than to suffer martyrdom, so finally his third attempt at erecting the orphanage was to last, under the heavenly protection of the Little Flower.
The building was dedicated on Oct. 30, 1930. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament founded by Sister Katherine Drexel were recruited for the services of the children and to teach at the parish school, which was dedicated a year later.
In 1932, Msgr. Quinn organized the establishment of St. Benedict the Moor Church for blacks in Queens. His prodigious undertakings were accomplished from his love of the Sacred Heart, which fueled his energy, in the giving of himself for the spiritual and social well-being of blacks, whites and Hispanics who came within the orbit of his care.
The kind, friendly and prayerful priest finally was exhausted by illness and died during an emergency abdominal surgery in the early morning of Good Shepherd Sunday on April 7, 1940.
It seemed a serendipitous occurrence that Bernard Quinn’s Jan. 15th birthday was the same as that of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was born in 1929.
A Good Shepherd
Any claims that Msgr. Quinn had to championing the rights of blacks, as expressed in The New York Times obituary of him, can be justified only because he was fired up with the love of Christ for his black brethren. His death on Good Shepherd Sunday was a confirmation that he loved Jesus from his heart and was like him, a shepherd who was willing to sacrifice his life for his flock.
What makes the cause of Msgr. Quinn’s canonization so exciting is his relevancy to our times. As we experience a resurgence of disturbing manifestations of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant attacks and the degradation of human life by abortion and euthanasia, we have Bernard Quinn who affirmed the inherent dignity of all people as God made them in his own likeness.
A fitting summary of Msgr. Quinn’s life is that he lived to the fullest, the new commandment of Jesus to love one another as he loves us (John 13:34).
At the time when the protection of children is given the highest importance by the Church, we are inspired by Msgr. Quinn, a clergyman who put his life on the line to protect the lives of the lambs, his orphan children from the KKK.
The children were inconsolable at his death because he gave everything in his love and care for them. He did that because of the fire of his love for them and his black adult brethren and people of other races whom he encountered.
It is no accident that the vespers to bring closure to the diocesan investigation of the cause for his canonization, would occur on the eve of June 19, referred to as “Juneteenth”, by African-Americans to celebrate their emancipation from slavery in 1865. Msgr. Quinn obviously wants all people to abolish the evils that cause them to despise others who are different and to love them in emulation of his life.
Rev. Msgr. Paul W. Jervis is the temporary administrator of St. Catherine of Genoa, East Flatbush, and pastor of St. Francis of Assisi-St. Blaise, Crown Heights.