Msgr. Bernard Quinn, a champion of African Americans rights, helped establish the diocese’s first parish for black Catholics
BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — The year was 1917. America had just entered World War I. It was also a somber time in church history — black Catholics were not welcomed to worship within the same space as their white Catholic brothers and sisters.
Parish schools were beginning to flourish under the care of various religious orders who taught the curriculum as a service to the church. On the same token, some religious orders had to be convinced to teach catechism to a classroom filled with colored children. The race relations within many churches were sadly a reflection of what was happening in the United States of America.
Yet, within the confines of Our Lady of Mercy — the former church in Downtown Brooklyn — a small, humble faith community was relentless in their desire to live out the Good News of the Gospel. Jules DeWeever had founded the Colored Catholic Club (CCC) in 1915 with the purpose of having a “Church for Colored Catholics established in this diocese.”
Despite their considerable efforts, they were not met with success. Eventually, the CCC disbanded.
Hope would not go unspoken once a humble and innovative priest from New Jersey entered into the conversation — Bernard John Quinn, the son of Irish immigrants.
Msgr. Quinn, or as his future parishioners would call him, Father Quinn, was very proud of his Irish-American roots, and yet he knew that he had to love the black people as his brothers and sisters. He wanted them to be proud of their history and their culture as he was of his own.
After being ordained in 1912, Msgr. Quinn was assigned to a few diocesan parishes such as St. Patrick’s in Bay Ridge and St. Gregory the Great in Crown Heights. It was at the Brooklyn church, when he was preparing two black women for baptism, that he was seized with a passion for beginning an apostolate to their race. Msgr. Quinn wanted the diocese to give black Catholics its full support in establishing a church for them, feeling that they were too long excluded from the practice of their faith.
He wrote in The Tablet at the time saying, “Give them the opportunities of Catholic worship, Catholic education and Catholic social life, and we can expect to find the Colored Catholics among the best citizens of city, state or country.”
The Journey to Establishing a Church
The journey to establishing a church hit a roadblock once again in 1917 when then-Bishop Charles McDonnell, recruited Msgr. Quinn as one of the chaplains to serve the American soldiers during the First World War. Upon returning into the diocese in 1919, Msgr. Quinn received permission in 1920 from Bishop McDonnell to begin his ministry to the black people of Brooklyn.
Msgr. Quinn took to the Brooklyn streets as a young Irish-American priest seeking anyone who was Catholic and black to join his ministry. Divine providence led him to Jules de Weever, the founder of the CCC. Word spread amongst the CCC community and around the diocese. Combining efforts led to acquiring a building for the church — what was at the time a storage depot by the Wescott Express Company for trunks and baggage in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
The depot was in good condition, having a storied career — first constructed in 1853 as a Congregationalist church, then sold to an Episcopalian congregation, who after a short time, turned the building over to a Baptist denomination. Msgr. Quinn asked the diocese to buy the property and under Bishop McDonnell’s guidance, his board of consultors approved the $35,000 purchase, along with the adjoining three-storied brownstone for $20,000, which would serve as the rectory.
On Christmas Day, 1921, St. Peter Claver — the first parish in the diocese for black Catholics — was founded with Rev. Quinn as its first pastor and the cornerstone for the church was laid. By 1922, the church was completed and blessed by Bishop Thomas Edmund Molloy.
St. Peter Claver Institute was built next to the parish in 1931 under the leadership of Henry V. Murphy, an architect who designed more than 50 buildings for the diocese,including four buildings at St. John’s in Queens and the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Windsor Terrace. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament were the first occupants to move into their convent in the new institute. Along with basketball games, the school gym doubled as a performance hall for various entertainment personalities. One of the star performers to emerge from the parish in the 1940s was an American R&B singer by the name of Savannah Churchill, who sang in the church choir.
Before the Civil Rights Era, an Irish-American priest and black Catholics in Brooklyn worked together in unison to forge a new era in their diocese’s history. Even though the climate surrounding the black community was restrictive and segregated, Msgr Quinn went above and beyond to give them opportunities to belong to parish societies and empowered them to accomplish their goals.
Mr. de Weever became well-known for exemplifying a Vincentian spirit of selfless devotion to the poor. St. Peter Claver Church’s St. Vincent de Paul Society became the charitable arm for the parish men to perform works of mercy. Their Holy Name Society became the mobilizing force that allowed black Catholic men to spearhead the Gospel through the unforgiving streets and within any community that allowed them in.
The flock at St. Peter Claver expanded even further beyond the Brooklyn and Queens borders when Msgr. Quinn introduced a novena to St.Thérèse of Lisieux that grew admirers of every color. During his time serving as a WWI chaplain, Father Quinn deepened his devotion to St.Thérèse of Lisieux. With her relic at the Brooklyn church, numerous miraculous cures occurred through her intercession and word spread like wildfire. A recorded two million people sought aid from “The Little Flower” at the Brooklyn shrine.
Fast forward to present-day 2020. That same courageous, resilient spirit fueled by the love of Christ still exists within the parish community at St. Peter Claver Church. The church merged as one of the worship sites of St. Martin de Porres parish in 2007. The new parish has three churches — St. Peter Claver, Holy Rosary, and Our Lady of Victory, all in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
At its centennial celebration, Father Alonzo Cox, pastor, celebrated the Mass. He spoke in his homily how the St. Peter Claver community stands strong and how, with the guidance of Msgr. Quinn, they still live out the Gospel.
“There have been many changes throughout these 100 years, but the mission of preaching the Good News will forever and always remain the same,” said Father Cox. “We have a lot to celebrate.”
Familiar faces from the parish community reconnected once again in the communion of saints at High Mass. Some of those who walked the hallways of the school and gymnasium built not only for blacks, but for anyone in the community who needed a safe haven, they kneeled in the same pews that their mothers, grandmothers, and grandfathers did.
After Mass, the church hall was blessed and renamed after the first black man ordained for, and in, the Diocese of Brooklyn – a product of St. Peter Claver Church itself – Msgr. William J. Rodgers. Due to COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing, parishioners and guests had to hear the blessing from speakers in the church.
Estella White McDuffey is a current parishioner.
“I’m not going anywhere like Father (Cox) said,” said McDuffey, who was baptized at the church and attended first through eighth grade at the parish school, which is now rented out to a private elementary school.
She recalled the significance of the centennial event and says the secret to its continued success is evident: family and ancestors.
“We stand on their shoulders,” McDuffey said. “They built this church for people of color and we just have to continue that.”
Pastors of St. Peter Claver Church
Bernard J. Quinn, 1920-40
Raymond J. Campion, 1940-1952
William J. Cullen, 1952-1966
John J. Kean, 1973-79
James A. Hunt, 1979-95
Patrick West, 1995-2001
Jim Krische, 2001-2006
Paul Jervis, 2006-2014
Alonzo Cox, 2014 – Present