Diocesan News

New Pastor’s Local Resurrection Revival Aims to Boost Queens Parish

Marissa John, a parishioner at St. Benedict the Moor, performs at the revival on April 10. (Photo: Alicia Venter)

JAMAICA — For more than half a century, Frances Rhymes has worshiped in the pews of St. Benedict the Moor Church. Since she converted to Catholicism at 32 years old, she has been an integral part of the parish, now combined with St. Bonaventure Church. 

That is why Rhymes, at nearly 92 years old, could be found sitting in the front row of St. Benedict the Moor for each night of an event called Resurrection Revival. It was part of the parish’s mission to revitalize Catholic faith in its Jamaica neighborhood.  

“People moved away, and with technology, now you can look at everything on TV. But years ago, I remember this church packed every Sunday, standing room only,” Rhymes said. “It means a lot [to have this revival]; trying to get to the people in the community.”

From Sunday, April 8, to Wednesday, April 10, the St. Bonaventure-St. Benedict the Moor community joined in praise and worship each night at 7 p.m. It is one phase of a “ministry of hospitality” formed by newly appointed pastor Father Chris Piasta to uplift the united parish, which in recent years has been mired in financial troubles. 

In February, Father Piasta held a “State of the Parish” speech, during which he spent hours detailing the need for systemic change within the parish. He stressed that he wanted congregants to take to the streets, to make the parish a welcoming space for those in the neighborhood who may have stepped away from Catholicism and stopped coming to Mass. 

The overall theme of the Resurrection Revival was “Won’t He Do It,” and its purpose, Father Piasta explained, was to stir up fresh interest in the historically black faith community, and boost Mass attendance.

“If I don’t [lure parishioners back to the pews], what’s the reason for me to be here? I’m here to feed people spiritually. If I don’t do that, I can basically close the door, and go somewhere else. That’s my first and foremost responsibility,” Father Piasta said.

Only 54% of black American adults who were raised as Catholics remain within the faith, the Pew Research Center found in a 2022 study. In Jamaica, where churches of different denominations can be found on almost every corner, Father Piasta looks to bring back the presence of Catholicism through discipleship and outward expression.

“We are trying to actually blast the message that the Catholics in this little, tiny church are not dead. We are viable. We are energetic,” he said. 

Lloyd Francis, a parishioner at St. Benedict the Moor since 1987, does not consider himself a “black Catholic.” The Jamaican immigrant identifies as “just Catholic.” He came to the April 10 session of the Resurrection Revival at St. Benedict the Moor, which coincidentally shares the name of the church where he worshiped in his native Jamaica, because his faith has been a stabilizing force in his life.

“For me, it’s like a pep rally, … taking it to another level. Something outside of the norm,” he said of the gathering. 

Each night, the local revival brought motion and worship together, featuring dance performances by young parishioners that brought the assembled congregants to their feet as they celebrated their faith. St. Benedict the Moor has a long history of incorporating dance into their parish life, with Rhymes herself starting the St. Benedict School of Dance in the 1960s. 

“I’m just super happy that I can share my faith with everybody through dancing,” Marleen Zephirin, 13, said. “It’s to celebrate that Jesus died for your sins.”

To bring a new voice into the parish, Father Piasta invited Father Maurice Nutt to lead the services during the local revival. 

Father Nutt, a priest in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, is a former director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana, and a past convener of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium. His mentor was Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, a candidate for sainthood, and he wrote a biography of her life alongside several other works.

During Father Nutt’s homily on April 10, he echoed the sentiments of Father Piasta, that the Resurrection Revival effort at St. Bonaventure-St. Benedict the Moor is only just beginning.

“I believe people’s faith has been enlightened and enlivened,” the visiting priest said. “They feel like they are receiving a word that will encourage them to continue to evangelize and spread the good news. I believe this revival will be a launch pad for evangelization happening within this community.”