By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Several events occurring in our Archdiocese recently suggest the topic for our reflection this week. Last Saturday, I celebrated Mass at the Shrine of Saint Katharine Drexel, Foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, to honor the 150th anniversary of her birth. On Sunday, November 2, I was present at an event during which scholarships were awarded to Catholic African American high school students, according to a bequest made for that purpose in memory of Monsignor John T. Mitchell. This past Monday, November 3, I celebrated the annual Saint Martin de Porres Mass in our Cathedral and this coming Tuesday, November 11, the African American Catholic Community Religious Education Meeting will take place at the Saint Peter Claver Center in Philadelphia. The people and places I have just mentioned provide the outline for this week’s column.
Saint Peter Claver Evangelization Center
Saint Peter Claver Evangelization Center is located on the site of the historic Saint Peter Claver Church, at 12th and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia. It was founded in 1886 and is the mother Church of African American Catholics in the Archdiocese. The early date of the foundation of this Church shows not only the presence of African American Catholics in our Archdiocese well over a hundred years ago, but also their zeal for a personal parish of their own. The Black Catholics of the surrounding parishes united to form an organization called the “Peter Claver Union,” with the goal of establishing their own parish and school. This Union was named for Saint Peter Claver (1580 1654), a Spanish Jesuit priest who devoted his life to the black slaves arriving in Colombia, vowing to make himself “the slave of the blacks forever.” If you have the opportunity, you may want to read the Second Reading in the Liturgy of the Hours for his Memorial, celebrated on September 9. It is a letter that he wrote to his religious superior describing his work and it is very moving.
What would eventually become Saint Peter Claver Church had formerly been a Presbyterian Church. With the help of benefactors-Saint Katharine Drexel among them-the building was purchased for use as a Catholic Church. The Archbishop of Philadelphia entrusted the pastoral care of the Parish to the Holy Ghost Fathers, who are widely known for their missionary work in Africa. The Church was ready for public use in 1892, just in time to host the Third Black Catholic Congress. It is interesting to note that the opening Mass was celebrated by Father Augustus Tolton, as far as we know the first Black Catholic priest in the United States. My predecessor, Cardinal Bevilacqua, established the Saint Peter Claver Evangelization Center at this site as a place for the catechetical and spiritual formation of the laity, clergy and religious who serve the African American Catholic community in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. It is also used for retreats, workshops and meetings, such as the Religious Education Meeting mentioned earlier. I am so pleased that we have this Center in the Archdiocese, which not only maintains the presence of the African American Catholic community at this historic Church but which also continues as a living organism of evangelization among African Americans in the Delaware Valley.
Saint Katharine Drexel
Many of you are more familiar with Saint Katharine Drexel (1858 1955) and her work than you may have been with the Saint Peter Claver Evangelization Center and I have written about her and her work several times in this column. The Drexel name is very familiar to us here in the Delaware Valley. Katharine, as a member of that family, had access to great wealth and a promise of a luxurious life. Instead, she used the fortune that was left to her to fund schools and churches for African Americans and Native Americans. She also founded a Congregation of Religious Sisters, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who dedicate their lives to this work. The fruits of Mother Katharine’s zeal are not only found in our Archdiocese, which is the home of her tomb and the mother house of her Sisters but also in the many institutions around the country which she founded. At her canonization ceremony in 2000, the late Pope John Paul II said of her: “Mother Katharine Drexel was born into wealth but from her parents she learned that her family’s possessions were not for them alone but were meant to be shared with the less fortunate. As a young woman, she was deeply distressed by the poverty and hopeless conditions endured by many Native Americans and Afro Americans. She began to devote her fortune to missionary and educational work among the poorest members of society. Later, she understood that more was needed. With great courage and confidence in God’s grace, she chose to give not just her fortune but her whole life totally to the Lord” (Homily, 1 October 2000).
Monsignor Mitchell Memorial Scholarship Fund
The Founder of this Memorial Fund was the late Captain Dolores Cornelius, USN. The event at which the scholarships were awarded this year was a wonderful panorama of the vibrancy of the Black Catholic Community, both in our own Archdiocese and in other parts of the country. It was also a sign of the past, present and future of this part of our local Church.
Its past was recalled by the memory of Monsignor Mitchell himself who, although not an African American, spent many years among the Black Catholic community of West Philadelphia. His zeal and memory are obviously remembered with great affection and gratitude and this is a reminder of the many priests and Religious who did, and do, similar work with such dedication and love. The present was exemplified by our own Black Catholic Community who were in attendance, along with Father Stephen Thorne, the Director of the Office for Black Catholics in our Archdiocese. Also present within this group were three of the four recipients of the Saint Martin de Porres Awards, the fourth being given posthumously to Captain Cornelius. All of us were stirred up and inspired by the excellent Keynote Address given by Archbishop Wilton Gregory, Archbishop of Atlanta and himself an African American. The future was represented by the students who were presented with the Scholarships, each of whom attends one of our Catholic High Schools.
Annual Saint Martin de Porres Mass
It is wonderful to note that, in the very year of the canonization of Saint Martin de Porres in 1962, another one of my predecessors, Cardinal John Krol, instituted the Annual Saint Martin de Porres Mass in our Archdiocese. He did so with the same motivation that inspires me and those who celebrated with me in our Cathedral to give thanks to God for the African American Catholic community in the Archdiocese and to spur us all on in the effort to evangelize our brothers and sisters.
As a young priest, studying in Rome, I was present at the canonization of Saint Martin de Porres. In his homily that day, Blessed John XXIII said: “The example of Martin’s life is ample evidence that we can strive for holiness and salvation as Christ Jesus has shown us, first by loving God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind; and second, by loving your neighbor as yourself” (Homily, 6 May 1962). Saint Martin showed this love in the midst of many challenges and contradictions. Today, as we are plagued with so much violence, the challenge to live out and spread the peaceful message of Jesus sometimes seems overwhelming. The words of Saint Paul: “I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me” (Philippians 4:13) and the example of Saint Martin, Saint Katharine and Saint Peter Claver, as well as the living examples of so many faithful African American Catholics and those who work with them remind us that we are never overcome because our victory is in Jesus, who is also our strength.
Ongoing evangelization and education
The African American Religious Education Meeting coming up on November 11, reminds us of the living and ongoing work of both evangelization and education in our African American Catholic community. I would like to draw particular attention this week to the Office for Black Catholics, part of our Secretariat for Evangelization, which is entrusted with this work in the Black community in my name.
This Office “is responsible for setting a vision for all aspects of pastoral ministry to Black Catholics by collaborating with various offices in the Archdiocese to affirm the gifts African Americans offer to the Church” (Mission Statement, Office for Black Catholics). Among its many functions, this Office sponsors a 24 credit course as part of the Religious Studies spanision of Saint Charles Seminary for those engaged in pastoral service in the Black Catholic community. I have already mentioned the Saint Peter Claver Center, which is also guided by this Office, in order to form the laity to take up their roles in spreading the Gospel. The Office also sponsors programs to promote vocations to the Diocesan Priesthood among African American men, a leadership weekend for African American youth, a Family Focus Day and Voices for Life, a Pro Life outreach initiative in the African American community. Something that is unique to our Archdiocese is the Martin de Porres Foundation, which provides funding for many of the programs mentioned here, and to which we are deeply indebted.
As these several celebrations come together during these weeks, we give thanks to God for the presence of our Black Catholic community in the Archdiocese for so much of our history. While we can rejoice in all that has been accomplished, we renew our commitment to this important work of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
November 6, 2008