Msgr. Bernard J. Quinn (d. 1940) certainly knew the value of immigrants and the fact that all human beings are born in God’s image and likeness. The son of poor Irish immigrant parents (his father was a longshoreman), Msgr. Quinn saw the horrors of war up close when he was assigned as a chaplain for the 333rd Machine Gun Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army in the “War to end all wars,” that is, the First World War.
He himself was the victim of a brutal gas attack during the war. Quinn had always grown up with the idea of the sanctity and value of all human life, but in that vicious, brutal war, Quinn witnessed first-hand what happens when we forget that the person in front of us is a fellow human being, someone with an immortal soul.
Soon after coming home from World War I, Father Quinn established the parish of St. Peter Claver (which today is the parish of St. Martin de Porres and is comprised of the churches of Holy Rosary, Our Lady of Victory, and St. Peter Claver) in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.
What was unique about this parish is it was the first in the Diocese of Brooklyn to be founded to serve African Americans and Caribbean Americans in the area.
At St. Peter Claver, Msgr. Quinn created a place where all were welcome and could come to gather and to praise the Lord Jesus. He recognized the fact that the word “Catholic” means “universal,” and that is precisely what the church, the Mystical Body of Christ, the People of God, is. This brave pastor received much criticism for his work with the black Catholics of his day, but he never let that deter him from his duties to serve as a shepherd for his flock.
The now-defunct parochial school of St. Peter Claver (closed in 1988) claims the famous singer Lena Horne as a graduate. In 1928, Msgr. Quinn, as we know, founded the Little Flower House of Providence, an orphanage in Wading River, Long Island (which was then part of the Diocese of Brooklyn before the creation of the Diocese of Rockville Centre in 1957). That orphanage was burned twice to the ground by the Ku Klux Klan — so outraged was that hate group that white people would care for black children.
We hope Msgr. Quinn, a Servant of God, will one day be raised to the altars and celebrated as a canonized saint. That process of study, prayer, and investigation is very much underway today.
Were Msgr. Quinn alive today, there is no doubt that he would be shocked and horrified by the growing hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders throughout our nation and, in particular, in our city. These attacks are motivated by fear, racism, and stupidity.
What is more horrific is that this violence is directed mostly toward elderly Asian people and it’s been perpetrated by younger men.
The Asian-American community in New York City did not create the pandemic and they are not responsible for the coronavirus.
We as Catholic New Yorkers need to speak up against this outrageous prejudice and hatred. That’s our task in these troubled days.