Up Front and Personal

How I Remember Father Martin Carter

By Donna Leslie

For me, this story begins in the fall of 1988. I was a new parish representative selected to the Office of Black Ministry in those days. The scene was the monthly Parish Liaison meetings for the OBM.

Father Martin Carter, SA was the newly appointed diocesan vicar and director for the office. Father Carter, who was a tall, dark man with a great big, beautiful smile and a deep baritone voice, would always begin the meeting in song.

On January 7, 2022, a fresh winter snowstorm provided a picturesque background of snow on the trees and the sidewalks of Brooklyn. The sun shined on the steeple of a landmark church: Our Lady of Victory. A funeral hearse was parked at the corner. Father Carter, the first African American pastor in the 154-year history of the parish, had passed away on Christmas Day.

While a funeral is normally a day of mourning, parishioners, those who worked with the OBM, friends, family, and clergy came not to mourn. They came in celebration. They came to shout the victory of a Franciscan friar who loved his black people. Their lives mattered to him long before they “officially” mattered.

Under Father Carter’s leadership, the OBM held workshops to teach the masses about black culture and spirituality. It also brought a three-day event at the Immaculate Conception Center in Queens called “Praise Him,” offering leadership training for black laity.

In a New York Times article on February 6, 2000, Father Carter told of being rejected by seminary after seminary because he was black. He was later accepted into the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement and ordained a priest decades later at age 50. In 1995, he became the first Black pastor of Our Lady of Victory.

The greatest legacy Father Carter left with the diocese (and the nation) is the Kujenga Youth Conference. He founded it in the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1977 and established Brooklyn’s Kujenga in 1989.

Originally entitled Kujenga Northeast Conference — from the Swahili word “to build” — the event is a retreat geared toward the spiritual, cultural, and leadership development of Black Catholic youth.

As I approached the casket, I felt a sense of sadness. Father Carter is the reason that I stayed in the Church. He gave me my culture and heritage and told me that it was OK to celebrate it in the Church.

I then began speaking with him. It was only me and an open casket. In my conversation, I thanked him for what he did for my parish and for me. I asked him to say hello to all of our OBM friends who will be there in heaven to greet him. I also asked him to say hello to my dad.

Then, I made the sign of the cross.

Donna Leslie is a freelance journalist, VBCC Board member, and an independent media producer. She is a parish leader at Our Lady of the Presentation-Our Lady of Mercy, Brownsville.