Many years ago, I was listening to a homily, where the priest urged the congregation: “Never stop telling the stories.” He was reminding us that it was our responsibility, some as the elders, and some as someday to be elders, to tell the story of our history; to tell the story of our heritage. We were reminded that we are descendants of kings and queens. We were reminded of the importance of teaching young people about their roots; about their identity; about their history.
A few years after that, I was privileged to attend a presentation by the late great actor Ossie Davis and his wife, Ruby Dee. Much of their performance charted the course of their illustrious careers and their enduring loving relationship as husband and wife. However, there was another major point to the presentation. Ossie and Ruby urged their audience: “Never stop telling the stories.”
I was reminded about these two events last week as I was walking through St. Peter Claver Evangelization Center. I thought about the history of St. Peter Claver Parish, considered by many the “Mother Church for Black Catholics” of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. St. Peter Claver Church was founded in 1892 by Archbishop Patrick Ryan to serve the spiritual needs of Black Catholics. I looked at the beautiful white marble sanctuary which bears the names of many great men and women who worked tirelessly to support St. Peter Claver Church. I thought: “This is our Black Catholic history.”
I thought about how St. Katharine Drexel worshipped in this church and how the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament taught in the school. I thought about how the third National Black Catholic Congress was hosted by Philadelphia in 1892, right in St. Peter Claver Church. I could feel the warmth, the spirituality and the history as I stood in that sacred space.
The St. Peter Claver Evangelization Center, which was established in 1995 by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, Archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia, contains many pictures and memorabilia detailing the history of Black Catholics of Philadelphia. As you walk through the rooms, you can feel the presence of the elders. You can almost hear them saying: “Never stop telling the stories.”
Never stop telling the stories of St. Josephine Bakhita, Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Mother Elizabeth Lange, Father Augustus Tolton and Mother Henriette DeLille and countless others.
As we enter February, which is Black History Month, we are reminded of the many contributions of Black Catholics to the rich history of Catholicism in Philadelphia and throughout the world. We are reminded of the people who can and do “tell the stories.” People like Walter Holland, a parishioner at St. Rose of Lima, who I regard as a modern day griot-historian, and Father Rayford Emmons from Our Lady of Hope Parish, who works so hard to preserve and communicate Black Catholic history.
We are reminded of all the “saints” sprinkled in our midst who know the stories of the faith commitment of their communities. They can share the stories of the hope that endures for better days ahead. These “saints” certainly can tell us about the love they have for almighty God, the Catholic Church and their community. There is a story to be told. I pray that we’ll “never stop telling the stories.”
I invite all to join us for a day of prayer and reflection, working toward the National Black Catholic Congress XI, on Saturday, Feb. 18 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at St. Malachy Church, 11th and Master streets, in Philadelphia.
For additional information, contact the Office for Black Catholics at firstname.lastname@example.org
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