On the Feast of St. Peter Claver, known for his ministry to African Americans,  over 200 people gathered at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul for a Mass honoring Fr. Rayford E. Emmons, the first African American ordained Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, as he entered his 50th year of service to parishioners.

The Mass was sponsored by the Philadelphia chapters of the Knights of Peter Claver and the Knights of Peter Claver Ladies Auxiliary, international Catholic fraternal and sororal service orders.  The Knights of Peter Claver is largest and oldest Black Catholic lay-led organization still in existence. It was founded in 1909 in Mobile, Alabama.

The St. Peter Claver Mass is an annual event, though this is the first time it was held at the Cathedral Basilica.

“We’re taking advantage of the opportunity to honor him in this gorgeous setting,” said Grand Lady Janice Paige of the Philadelphia Tri-State Central Committees of Knights of Peter Claver

“He’s been the chaplain for our central committee for over 20 years.  He provides a lot of leadership.  He lends his religious expertise and gives us guidance,” she said.

Paige says that Emmons also coordinates for the Clavers to be featured twice a year – November and May – on the WPVI-TV Mass televised on Sunday mornings, and his homilies can be heard on WTMR-AM radio, broadcasting from Camden, NJ.

Fr. Rayford E. Emmons receives a plaque from Grand Lady Janice Paige, commemorating the start of his 50th year of priestly service.

“He’s amazingly knowledgeable about the history of the Catholic Church,” Paige says of Father Emmons, “particularly the history of Black people in the Catholic Church.  We’ve had several retreats where he shares his knowledge with us.  He can speak not just about now, but the history of the Church.”

Father Emmons, who grew up in West Philadelphia, serves as parochial vicar at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Mount Airy.  At age 75, he has no plans to retire.

“Celebrating God’s Grace, Surviving a Pandemic” was the theme of the Mass.  “It represents rebirth now that the pandemic is officially behind us,” says Paige.

Father Emmons was both celebrant and homilist.  In his homily, he spoke about the contributions of Black people in the Catholic Church.

During his homily, he said that there are three questions he’s often asked.  One is “Why are you Catholic?”  He was baptized Catholic when he was 15, so that he could attend Catholic school, St. Thomas More Catholic High School, and being Catholic was a requirement at that time.

Another question is, “What did the Catholic Church ever do for you?”  He cited the many schools and hospitals opened by the Catholic Church.

And finally, “What did Black people ever do for the Church?”  He said the answer is, “They’ve done a lot.”

Emmons traced the history of Black Catholics “beginning with the Apostles,” referencing St. Simon of Cyrene, who helped Jesus carry his cross on the way to crucifixion.  Cyrene was a region in Northern Africa that became a Roman colony.

He also mentioned St. Cyprian, a bishop of Carthage born in the year 210 AD in North Africa, and Father Patrick Healy, a Catholic priest who was an influential president of Georgetown University.  Father Healy was posthumously recognized as the first Black American to become a Jesuit, to earn a Ph.D., and to become the president of a predominantly white university.

St. Peter Claver, on whose s feast day the Mass was celebrated, “started one of the first Civil Rights movements,” said Father Emmons, by making sure that Black Catholics “had rights in the Church.”

Known as the “Apostle of the Slaves,” St. Peter Claver was born in 1580 and is believed to have baptized over 300 thousand slaves into the Catholic Church.

Father Emmons also recognized the 115 years of community service provided by the Knights and Ladies Auxiliary of Peter Claver.

The Knights of Peter Claver Ladies Auxiliary await the start of Mass at The Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia.

“Sometimes, we get so caught up in the journey, we don’t turn around, and see how far we’ve come,” he said.  “We’ve come a long way.”

According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), there are over 3 million African American Catholics in the U.S. today.

“It’s important to know where we’ve come from to understand where Jesus is taking us,” Father Emmons said.

He also talked about the challenges we face today.  “How do we keep our churches open?  How do we keep our schools open?  How do we inspire more young people to become priests and nuns?  How do we double the number of Catholics t?” he asked.

He urged those in attendance to pray for their families, and especially for those who are grandparents to pray for their grandchildren.

After the Mass, Paige presented Father nEmmons with an engraved cross to commemorate his many years of priestly service.

He exclaimed in gratitude that of his many ministries, “Knights and Ladies is my favorite ministry.”

Music was provided throughout the Mass by the Philadelphia Catholic Gospel Mass Choir, under the direction of Tonya Taylor-Dorsey.  Established in 2014 in preparation for the World Meeting of Families—Philadelphia 2015, the choir sings for various Masses, revivals, celebrations, and performs annually at the Soulful Christmas Concert at the Kimmel Center.

The Knights of Peter Claver also has a youth program, says Paige, called the Junior Knights and Junior Daughters.  “We’re eager for them to join us,” says Paige of the youth in the community.  “We have social activities and do charitable work, monthly meetings, exposure to the Church and leadership skills.”