The 49th annual celebration of the canonization of St. Martin de Porres was celebrated with a Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. Nov. 6. The celebration highlighted the gifts of Philadelphia’s African American Catholic community: from the “Heritage Mass” and the singing of Negro Spirituals to the Afrocentric outfits worn by members of St. Benedict Parish in the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia.
Among the highlights was the interpretation of the Communion hymn “Open My Eyes Lord” sung by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir along with local vocalists. They performed under the direction of Craig Collier with Kevin Belton on piano. Among those who presented the offertory gifts were Nafessa Collins and her son Isaiah from St. Cyprian Parish. Angela Taylor was the cantor.
In his homily Archbishop Charles J. Chaput pointed out the significance of recognizing the contributions of St. Martin de Porres. In doing so, he said, we will take steps towards ending
racial and ethnic prejudices.
“It’s very important to know that the best of our culture is not the music, even though it is beautiful,” said Archbishop Chaput. “It’s not the unique colors of the clothes and vestment. It’s that we are called to be saints…so we look to saints, in this particular case saints (like) St. Martin de Porres.”
After pointing out that some believe in reincarnation, annihilation after death or some other concept of the afterlife, Archbishop Chaput stressed what Catholics believe. “It in Jesus Christ you and I find our future,” he said. Then the archbishop reminded the full house that it was their “individual duty to fill our lamps with oil” by emulating models like St. Martin de Porres.
Bill Bradley, recently appointed director of the Office for Black Catholics, said that he “stood in awe” as he spoke for the first time at the Mass. He singled out the previous directors of the office he now holds, including Father Stephen Thorne, the most recent director. He also thanked the St.
Martin de Porres Parish, the ushers from St. Cyprian Parish and Roman Catholic High School, and the sponsorship of the Martin de Porres Foundation.
“I really enjoyed this Mass,” said Charlene Pryor, a member of the St. Martin de Porres Parish in North Philadelphia. “I feel like I’m home. I’m just grateful that St. Martin de Porres was recognized so beautifully today because that is my home parish.”
“I really enjoyed the choir,” said Sylmone Sills, a recent alumnus of Our Mother of Sorrow School in West Philadelphia. Though she is not Catholic she decided to attend the Mass. She said while at the parish school she enjoyed cultural Masses and misses them now that she is a student at a local charter high school.
Our Mother of Sorrows and St. Ignatius School teachers Bridget Fanning and Jennifer Davis brought a group of youths who are members of the youth ministry to Sunday’s Mass. Fanning is in her second year of teaching eighth graders, while Davis has been instructing first graders at the school for five years.
“It was a great celebration,” said Fanning said. “This was my first time seeing the new archbishop. I liked how he said that even though we may have gifts of music, just like the choir who sang today, the real gifts are the people. It’s really all the different people who make this a church.”
Davis agreed. She added that what stood out to her was when the archbishop said that all are ordered to be saints. “It was very humbling to hear that even though we are here to celebrate a canonized saint, that we are called to be saints. So this celebration was about a community who needs to light our lanterns in our journey towards becoming saints,” Davis said.
Eugene and Louise Frasier from St. Athanasius Parish in the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia said that their parish brought the largest contingent of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Knights of Peter Claver to the Mass. Louise Frasier, who was dressed in the group’s signature white, said that the Junior Daughters and Knights from her parish also participated in the procession.
St. Martin de Porres was born in Lima, Peru in 1579 to a Spanish solider and a black freedwoman from Panama. At a young age he entered the Dominican Order as a lay brother and by 1603 become a full-fledged Dominican Brother. He was famous for his miracles, extreme penance, and long hours of prayer.
The appeal of St. Martin de Porres is universal. He was called an apostle of charity, a patron of social justice, father of the sick and the poor, wonder-worker of Peru, and helper in hopeless cases. It was in 1962 that Pope John XXIII presented him as the Saint of the Universal Brothers, making him the first person of color to be canonized in the Western hemisphere. His feast day is Nov. 3.