Baptized at 12, Parishioner Is Devoted to her Parish
SOUTH OZONE PARK — There are times when Beatrice Mills-Henry simply can’t help herself.
One of them is when she’s at Mass at St. Clement Pope Church and the congregation is singing a gospel song. There she’ll be, rising up from her pew, clapping her hands, and swaying to the beat of the music. She does this even if she’s the only one.
“Sometimes, I forget myself!” she told The Tablet with a smile.
Mills-Henry has been coming to St. Clement Pope since she started accompanying a friend to Mass when she was a 10-year-old Methodist with a curiosity about the Catholic Church. She was baptized into the Catholic faith at age 12 and has been coming to St. Clement Pope ever since.
She is one of those parishioners in the Diocese of Brooklyn who are the backbone of a parish and keep it going. She serves as a lector at Masses, is a catechist, and belongs to the parish council. In addition, she is a member of the Rosary Society and is a founding member of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Knights of St. Peter Claver.
“I like to tell people the only way I’m leaving St. Clement Pope is feet first!” she said.
Mills-Henry’s numerous church activities have drawn praise from her family and friends but she doesn’t think she’s a big deal. “I do what I can,” is her simple explanation as to why she volunteers so much of her time to her parish.
St. Clement Pope, established in 1908, is a predominantly African-American parish with devoted parishioners eager to show their love for Christ and pride in their heritage.
“We sing a lot of gospel types of songs at church,” Mills-Henry said.
The universality of the Catholic Church speaks to her heart in a special way.
“I love the fact that I can go anywhere in the world and as soon as I say I’m a Catholic, people give me prayer cards. I love the fact that there is confession,” she said. “No matter what happens, no matter what we have done in our lives, we get the chance to be redeemed.”
She has seen many changes over the years, including renovations to the church building. The altar used to be situated in the middle of the church with the pews stationed around it. There was also a chandelier hanging over the altar. A renovation that took place several years ago moved the altar to the front of the church, changed the seating, and removed the chandelier.
Mills-Henry spent her early years as a Methodist. But a chance encounter that her mother had with a nun in the early 1960s changed everything.
“My mother met a nun on a bus and told her she always wanted to be Catholic,” she said.
That was the start of everything. The nun invited Mills-Henry’s mother to attend religious education classes and convert to Catholicism.
“Everything happened fast. My mother was so intent on it. I was baptized on May 5, 1962. I was 12 years old. I received my First Holy Communion on May 12 and I was confirmed on May 18,” she recalled. Her parents also converted.
At that time, however, her devotion had its limits. Her parents asked her if she wanted to go to Catholic school. She turned down the chance.
“I was about to graduate from the sixth grade, so I said no. I told them they could save money by not paying tuition. I went to public school,” she said.
Still, while Catholic school didn’t appeal to her, other aspects of the faith captured her fancy.
“I wanted to be a nun,” she recalled. “But you know that old saying, ‘Man makes plans and God laughs.’ A funny thing happened on my way to becoming a nun. I have three kids and five grandchildren.”
She married her first husband outside of the Catholic Church. The marriage ended, “but I never gave up my faith.”
Her two sons, Anthony, 55, and Matthew, 49, were both baptized on the same day, July 25, although the baptisms took place seven years apart. Her daughter, Amira-Maria, 45, was baptized on July 4, 1976.
Mills-Henry married her second husband, James Henry, on Aug. 20, 1994. Henry, a widower, converted to Catholicism in 1997. He attends Mass with her at St. Clement Pope every Sunday.
Religion is an important part of the couple’s everyday life, not just on Sundays.
“My husband gets up every morning with a prayer,” she said. “We watch the Mass on television on weekdays.”