Diocesan News

Rousing Black History Month Mass Gives Thanks to ‘a Very Creative God’  

This is the first year flags were part of the Mass of Thanksgiving. (Photo: Alicia Venter)

JAMAICA ESTATES — Heritage and faith were celebrated in unison on Sunday, Feb. 25, as the Diocese of Brooklyn recognized its diversity during the Mass of Thanksgiving for Black History Month. Energized Catholics of all cultures filled the pews of Immaculate Conception Church for the service, organized by the Vicariate Office of Black Catholic Concerns.

“I’m always here for a good Mass, for good music, for a good homily, and I like to sing, so it was awesome,” said Trinidadian native Gail Edwards. 

With the diversity of the diocese, Bishop Brennan recognizes it is “not all that easy” for all people to feel heard and recognized, but that listening to those of all races is crucial to the Church. 

As the people of Brooklyn and Queens reflect on the past during Black History Month, he reminds them that “we also are writing the history now.”

“It’s not just that we listen to one another when things aren’t going well and when something’s wrong, but that we’re listening to one another in just the daily living and making decisions,” he said in a statement to The Tablet.

After 26 years in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, the Sister Thea Bowman Gospel Choir has returned to Brooklyn, and performed at the Mass. Touted as the first Catholic gospel choir in the U.S., the 50-member group wears traditional African-style attire and performs spirited songs of praise and worship. 

Sister Thea, an evangelist who passed away in 1990 and is now a candidate for sainthood, was an enthusiastic supporter of the choir, which was renamed for her in 1992. During the Mass of Thanksgiving, their impassioned singing had people, including Edwards, on their feet. 

Edwards said gospel music has always been crucial to her faith experience. Her home parish of St. Therese of Lisieux, Flatbush, is predominantly black and the music performed at the Mass of Thanksgiving was very similar to what she hears every Sunday. 

However, this celebration amplified that message, as black Catholics from across the diocese came together for a special acknowledgment of their cultural identity.

“It adds [to the experience] to see more people coming in. To see more of my people here singing, dancing, and praising God,” she added.

This year, the Vicariate Office of Black Catholic Concerns added some new features to the annual Mass, whose main celebrant was Bishop Robert Brennan. Each black ethnic apostolate was asked to participate, said Father Alonzo Cox, the office’s vicar, and the national flag of each represented country was walked in during the opening procession. 

“I always like to come back to a place and see the roots of the seeds that were planted, and tonight I saw that when they marched in with the flags,” said Father Robert Seay, OFM, the homilist of the Mass of Thanksgiving. He mentioned during his homily that the sight of the colorful collection of flags actually brought him to tears.

Nearly 30 years ago, Father Seay served at Our Lady of Charity in Crown Heights, a predominantly black Catholic Church. Though he has spent the past two decades in Louisiana, his New York City roots remain strong. 

His mentor and predecessor at Our Lady of Charity was Father Jim Goode, known nationwide as “Dean of Black Catholic Preaching.” They were the first two African American pastors at the church. During his time in New York, Father Seay served on the pastoral council for the mayor and received two Outstanding Citizen awards in Brooklyn.

“I think it’s always important to look at the various cultural differences that we have and the contributions that we have made. Being a Catholic, this has been a great contribution to the Church — this kind of spirit,” Father Seay told The Tablet.

The Sister Thea Bowman Choir performed at the celebratory Mass. (Photo: Alicia Venter)

Father Seay was one of only two black priests in the diocese when he started in Brooklyn in 1989. Now, the diocese has the highest number of black priests in the country, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

and the largest number of black Catholics of any diocese in the country. 

“I have a special awareness that God is a very creative God and of his love for everybody,” said Patrick LeBlanc, a Haitian man who traveled to the Mass of Thanksgiving from his home parish of Incarnation in Queens Village.

Father Seay was invited to celebrate the Mass by Father Cox, and for part of his homily, he carried a chair across the sanctuary toward the altar. The move, he explained, was inspired by the metaphor of making “a seat at the table,” famous words about inclusivity by Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. 

“I’m happy to be here today [wearing] my African [clothes],” said Ernest Baah. Dressed in traditional Ghanaian garb, Baah came to the annual Mass for the first time with his sister. They were visiting from St. Catherine of Genoa parish, East Flatbush, to worship alongside people also displaying their African heritage.

Father Cox said he hoped this Mass left those who attended feeling rejuvenated in their faith, and for the Church to continue recognizing the impact black Catholics have on its future.

“I think it’s important, especially during February … but we shouldn’t be doing this just one time out of the year,” Father Cox remarked. “We should be doing this all the time, in our own parish communities, really celebrating the diversity of who we are as black Catholics.”

Parishioners in prayer during the Black History Month Mass of Thanksgiving, including Gail Edwards. (Photo: Alicia Venter)