Gospel music resounded throughout St. Patrick’s Cathedral Feb. 2 as an estimated 1,500 black Catholics gathered for the annual Black History Month Mass and the Observance of the National Day of Prayer for the African-American and African Family.
Cardinal Dolan served as principal celebrant and homilist of the liturgy, which was sponsored by the archdiocesan Office of Black Ministry. This year’s theme was “Acknowledging and Celebrating the Important Role of Women In Our Families, Church and Community.”
The Mass, which honors all black Catholics in New York, coincides with the national observance of Black History Month.
The cardinal, in his homily, paraphrased the late Spanish philosopher George Santayana in underscoring that history is the best teacher and those who fail to learn from it are doomed to repeat it.
“There are those that I would dare say would like to erase history and memory and we can’t let that happen,” the cardinal said. “It is very popular today to go and trace family ancestry and explore how our families arrived to this country. For African Americans, there was no Ellis Island, there were no passports. They were greeted by chains, whips and guns when they arrived on American soil.”
Slavery was a harsh part of the history of the Americas; albeit more than 150 years in the past its imprint on our society even today is hard to deny. Nevertheless the black experience is one of perseverance and faith. Part of that persistence, the cardinal said, is based in faith. Cardinal Dolan called the Church a cherished repository.
Ria Williams, a high school math teacher who is a member of Holy Rosary and Nativity of Our Blessed Lady parish in the Bronx, emigrated from the Caribbean island nation of Dominica 26 years ago. She has attended the Black History Month Mass for two decades. “I enjoy seeing the different cultures, from the Caribbean, Ghanaians, Nigerians, Haitians, French. It’s a real nice experience to see our diversity. Growing up, my Catholic faith has always been the central presence in my life. I come from a country that when I was a child it was 95 percent Catholic; now I believe it’s 80 percent, so our faith from a young age is very important,” she told CNY.
The steps leading to the cathedral’s sanctuary were filled with colorful displays of African culture. The General Intercessions were prayed in various languages spoken by members of the black Catholic community of the archdiocese, including the African dialect of Akan, which is spoken in Ghana; Igbo, which is used in Nigeria and Guinea; and Tigrinya, spoken in Ethiopia.
Maureen Webb, also of Holy Rosary and Nativity of Our Blessed Lady, the Bronx, came to the United States from Jamaica in 1984.
“I always feel this is a great Mass because there are so many black Catholics in the archdiocese,” said Ms. Webb, a speech pathologist who is a mother of five and a grandmother of six.
“Our impact as Catholics in the Church is underrepresented at times. Growing up in Jamaica, I am one of 14 and my father always made sure that we went to Mass. It’s an example of how important family structure is in our society. I believe your values are instilled at home whether it be faith, education or work ethic.”
At the conclusion of the liturgy, Cardinal Dolan, alongside Brother Tyrone Davis, C.F.C., executive director of the Black Ministry Office, presented 10 women with the Bakhita Woman of Faith and Service Award. The honor is named for St. Josephine Bakhita, a slave from Sudan who became a Canossian religious sister in Verona, Italy, after she was awarded her freedom.
Deena A. Sellers, a teacher at Xavier High School in Manhattan who belongs to St. Francis Xavier parish in Brooklyn, was among the recipients. The Philadelphia native told CNY it is important to her to serve others in a manner befitting her vocations and that, as an educator for 17 years, being a mentor and a teacher go hand in hand.
“I am beyond humbled to receive the honor,” Miss Sellers said. “It’s always a blessing to be recognized for the good work that you do in the name of God. It’s just an honor to be a part of the Mass, and to receive this award was just the cherry on top.”