When Fonda Fantroy Richards attended her first National Black Catholic Congress last summer, she was moved to tears as she watched Cardinal Wilton Gregory and more than 200 African-American bishops, priests and permanent deacons process into the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., for the opening Mass.
“It was the first time that I felt there were other Blacks in the Church, period,” said Fantroy Richards, a member of St. Peter Parish in Kirkwood. “Going to Mass with Cardinal Gregory and seeing all of those African-American priests going up the aisle brought me to tears.”
Several Black Catholics from St. Louis who attended the National Black Catholic Congress in Fort Washington, Maryland, shared similar perspectives at an event held in celebration of Black Catholic History Month Nov. 12 at Pallottine Retreat and Conference Center in Florissant.
The celebration, hosted by the archdiocesan Office of Racial Harmony, included Scripture, song, reflections and small group discussions on topics including Black saints and the life of the Church, addressing social justice, youth ministry and leadership in the Church.
Black Catholics from a St. Louis implementation team who attended the congress shared their experiences from the July 20-23 event, which has been held 13 times since 1889, including every 5 years since 1987. The first congress included 200 delegates who met with President Grover Cleveland; Father Augustus Tolton (now venerable) celebrated High Mass.
One of the fruits of every congress is a five-year pastoral plan, which this time will be developed based on the theme, “Write the Vision: A Prophetic Call to Thrive.” Speaking at the St. Louis event, Cheryl Archibald said the plan will include the wisdom of God’s people who seek to renew and energize the mission of the Church in the current times.
“We’re getting a vision plan of action, which provides a road map for the future,” said Archibald, who serves as parish life coordinator at St. Vincent de Paul and St. Pius V parishes in south St. Louis. Once a national plan has been developed, the local implementation team will lead an effort to develop a plan tailored to the needs of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
The National Black Catholic Congress’ theme — taken from Habakkuk 2:2-4, in which the Lord encourages the prophet to record the divine vision while waiting patiently for its fulfillment — speaks particularly to the Black Catholic experience, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy E. Campbell Jr., president of the NBCC, said at the congress.
The cries of the prophets found in Scripture are the same cries that humans have today, Archibald said: people treating other people like animals, a perverted justice imposed on others according to someone else’s plan and violence that disregards the dignity of human beings.
As the national plan is still being developed, Archibald suggested turning to God in facing fears. She also recommended getting to know others, especially those who are different from us, and listen to their stories. “God did not give you a spirit of fear,” she said. “We cannot write the vision plan for St. Louis if we don’t trust God, if we can’t get past those fears.”
Joyce Jones, director of the Racial Harmony Office, said sometimes she hears the question: “Why aren’t there more Black Catholics in the Church?” But she said that question should be answered with: “If you knew how they had been treated in the Catholic Church, the question would be, why are there so many Black Catholics?”
Desiray Taylor, who attends St. Matthew the Apostle Church in north St. Louis and came into the Church as a young adult, said she is still figuring out her “why.”
“I’m OK with that,” she said. “I’ve had those conversations about what it means to be Catholic. But right now, in my life, I’m like, ‘Why not? I’m happy. I feel part of what God wanted for me to be is of service to other people.’”
Kenneth Patterson of St. Josephine Bakhita Parish in north St. Louis said the congress left him with a feeling that he had been “dipped in the water and thoroughly immersed.” Seeing other so many other Black Catholic priests, religious and laity at the event energized him.
Patterson also was encouraged as a lay person to remain involved in the life of the Church. “Be involved, don’t be one of those Monday morning quarterbacks — talk to your pastor,” he said. “People may knock the Catholic Church, but there’s a lot of good things going on. The Catholic Church is alive and well in St. Louis.”
OSV News contributed some information for this article.
>> Diverse imagery
St. Francis Xavier (College) Church celebrated Black Catholic History Month with a display of images of saints and other holy people from diverse backgrounds, which will soon be on permanent display in the church.
Conversations about curating images of people representing different races, ethnicities and artistic styles began several years ago among members of the parish’s Social Ministry Commission and Antiracism Team. Christina Ryan and Thi Nguyen, who co-led the project, said the discussions started with the artwork on display in the parish’s religious education classrooms.
The two began researching artists and artwork, and through discussions with the College Church’s staff and members of the Arts and Environment Commission, Youth Faith Commission and Pastoral Council, it was decided to create a “wall of saints” representing diverse ethnicities, countries of origin, patronages, historical backgrounds and artist backgrounds.
Framed images of 24 individuals were on display after Masses Nov. 12. The images come “with the hope that we reflect on how representation and being made in the image of God is shown and experienced in our Church,” project organizers said in a recent bulletin.
The images include Venerable Pierre Toussaint (Hatian-American), St. Isidore and Maria de Cabeza (Spain), Holy New Martyr Miguel Pro (Mexico), St. Moses the Black (Ethiopia), Sts. Perpetua and Felicity (present-day Tunisia), St. Augustine of Hippo (present-day Algeria), St. Martin de Porres (Peru), St. Teresa of Kolkata (present day north Macedonia), Venerable Augustus Tolton (African American), St. Cyprian (Carthage, Roman Empire), Servant of God Thea Bowman (African American), St. Monica of Hippo (present-day Algeria), St. Kateri Tekakwitha (Algonquin-Mohawk), Holy New Martyr Thomas Anchanikal with St. John de Brito (India), Servant of God Pedro Arrupe, SJ (Spain), St. Mary Magdalene (Israel), St. Anna Wang (China), St. Josephine Bakhita (Sudan), Venerable Teresa Chikaba (Ghana), St. Andrew Kim Taegon (Korea) and Servant of God Black Elk (Lakota).
Several years ago, Ryan said she wanted to create a prayer space at home with images that reflected diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. She went to a Catholic store and had a hard time finding what she wanted.
“I realized how important this imagery is for everyone, not just so that everyone can see themselves, but that we can see everybody as part of God’s people,” she said.
The images will be on display in the College Church through the month of November and then will move to a permanent display in the parish center. To learn more about the project at the College Church, email Thi Nguyen at [email protected].