BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — The Diocese of Brooklyn has the largest number of Black Catholics of any diocese in the country — according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — and the Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns works to ensure that their voices are heard.
The vicariate, led by its vicar, Father Alonzo Cox, pastor of St. Martin De Porres Parish in Bedford-Stuyvesant, is known for organizing Masses marking Black Catholic History Month and Dr. Martin Luther King Day.
But according to members of the vicariate’s advisory board, it does much more than that. There are workshops on black Catholic history and programs like the Young Ambassadors to encourage young people to give back to the community and the Kujenga Youth Leadership Retreat, a chance for teenagers to spend a weekend praying and learning leadership skills.
“There’s a lot going on,” said Shaniqua Wilson, an advisory board member and an original “Kujengan” who remembers taking part in the first retreat in 1989.
Wilson, a parishioner at St. Bonaventure-St. Benedict the Moor Parish in Jamaica, is one of 12 vicariate advisory board members who meet once a month with Father Cox.
A highlight of the vicariate’s work was the Black History Month Mass at the Immaculate Conception Monastery in Jamaica on Feb. 20, in which Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the first black Cardinal in the U.S., was the main celebrant. The vicariate worked with the Office of Multicultural Diversity in the Diocese of Rockville Centre to organize the Mass.
“It was amazing to have hundreds of Catholics from Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau, and Suffolk come and pray with us,” Father Cox said. “It continues to be really a very powerful moment here in the diocese — being able to welcome and host Cardinal Gregory.”
The Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns was established in 2006. Before that, it was known as the Office of Black Catholic Ministry. But its history dates back to the late 1970s when during the episcopacy of Bishop Francis Mugavero, the diocese formed the Council for Black Catholics at the behest of parishioners who wanted to make sure their African-American identity was honored and respected.
The council’s members had lived through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and were determined to ensure that Black Catholics were treated as full and equal members of the Catholic Church — not second-class citizens.
In the 1980s, the diocese established the Office of Black Ministry to continue that work.
Darcel Whitten-Wilamowski, who is now the coordinator of the Office of Multicultural Diversity in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, was a parishioner of Christ the King Church in Springfield Gardens, Queens, in the 1980s. She recalled attending a workshop in Dallas, Texas, as the Office of Black Ministry was being formed.
“The whole point of that workshop was to sit down and discuss the liturgy. How do we use our music in the liturgy? How do we function as lectors? How do we function as ministers of hospitality?” she remembered, adding that the idea was to find ways to bring more of the African culture into Mass.
The decision to form the vicariate in 2006 was made to reflect the seriousness with which the diocese looked at the mission. A vicariate is an office of a vicar or administrator in the church.
The vicariate’s first vicar was the late Auxiliary Bishop Guy Sansaricq (1934-2021), a Haitian-American. Father Cox was named vicar in 2013 by then-Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.
Father Cox said one of his goals is to raise awareness of Black Catholics who are under consideration for sainthood, like Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman and Venerable Father Augustus Tolton. “We have six hopefully future saints who are of African descent. Allowing our students — black and white — to learn who they are and what they were about is important,” he said.
Father Cox recently met with Deacon Kevin McCormack, the superintendent of schools in the diocese, to discuss this and other educational issues.
In Father Cox’s view, the vicariate’s job is to serve as an advocate and voice for Black Catholics. “I also want to continue to work with young families, empower our young people to let them know that they have a voice in the Church,” he explained.
Current advisory board members are aware they stand on the shoulders of those who came before them. But they are also determined to move the vicariate forward and embrace the totality of the black Catholic experience.
“There is a wonderful diversity within the black community. Of course, you have African Americans. But there are also Caribbean Americans, Haitians, and even within the African community, there is diversity,” explained Michele Guerrier, a parishioner of St. Therese of Lisieux Church in East Flatbush who has been on the advisory board for four years and is Haitian.
Guerrier, a retired probation officer, had a long history of service to the church before she signed on as an advisory board member. She worked as a youth minister at her parish, organized retreats, played guitar at Mass, and was close to Bishop Sansaricq, who got her involved in working in the vicariate.
“He was a spiritual father to me,” she said, adding that he encouraged her to learn more about her Haitian roots.
“I’ve been blessed to see good changes over the years,” said advisory board member Georgeann Campbell, a retired Eastern Airlines sales executive and a parishioner of St. Bonaventure-St. Benedict the Moor Parish.
Following the establishment of the Office of Black Ministry, “you started to see people take more pride in their heritage,” Campbell said.
“You began to see people wearing the colors of Africa to church. You started hearing more gospel music at Mass,” she added. “It made you feel good about who you were and whose you were. We all belong to God.”
Campbell is eager to promote pride in Black Catholics, particularly in young people. “If you don’t know you are special, you might not act that way,” she explained.
Advisory board members talked openly about the racism they have seen and experienced as Black Catholics and said part of their mission is to combat it by spreading the word of God.
Wilson recalled walking into St. James Cathedral as a 12-year-old in the early 1990s to take part in a rehearsal for a youth choir concert.
“Immediately, a lady came up to me and said, ‘They’re giving out food up the block.’ She thought I was there to get a handout,” she said. “She then insisted on walking me into the church, and she told someone that I said I was there for a rehearsal as if I was lying.”
Michael Davis, a parishioner of Our Lady of Victory Church, is one of the newest members of the advisory board, having joined in 2021. He came to the vicariate through his hobby — photography.
Since 2007, he has photographed special celebrations at the church, such as Holy Communion and the Easter Vigil. “I love to capture moments on film. And these Masses have plenty of moments. You see people giving themselves to the Lord,” he said. He also uses his photography skills to document the celebrations and activities of the vicariate.
Davis, a cyber-security manager for Altice, is also the head usher at Our Lady of Victory. In addition to greeting parishioners as they enter the church, he sees his role as reaching out to others. “If I’m standing by the door and I see someone on the sidewalk, I invite them in to join us,” he said.
Wilson has been active in Black Catholic circles since her teenage years. She attended World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 and sang in a youth choir in front of Saint Pope John Paul II.
She recalled Father Martin Carter, who headed the Office of Black Ministry in the 1980s, as having a big influence on her, starting at the first retreat she attended.
“One of the things he really instilled in all of us, as far as being the first Kujengans, was that we had this responsibility of remaining Catholic, remaining in our church, and also organizing and networking,” Wilson said.
She has carried that lesson to other church-connected activities. In addition to her role on the advisory board, she is also a district conference president of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Knights of St. Peter Claver, a Catholic service organization.
“The whole point of it was to learn how to organize,” she added. “The main thing was to build a strong network.”