Bishops celebrate Mass at historic black church to 'convey solidarity'

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Carol Zimmermann

bishops chose to break from tradition during this year’s fall assembly by
celebrating Mass at the church known as the “Mother Church” of black
Catholics in Western Baltimore instead of the usual venue: Baltimore’s historic

“I pray our presence will
convey the church’s solidarity with you,” said Baltimore Archbishop
William E. Lori in opening remarks Nov. 14 to a few dozen parishioners attending
the Mass with more than 250 bishops who filled nearly every pew of the small church.

In his homily, Archbishop Joseph
E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, said the bishops came to the church “to be
present, to see with our own eyes, so that we might humbly take a step and lead
others to do so.”

Archbishop Kurtz, outgoing
president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, also said the bishops’
presence was just one part of an effort to bring about healing of racial
divides. He acknowledged this effort would involve “more than simply a
quick visit on a bus.”

The Nov. 14 Mass and other
events around the nation such as prayer services to heal divisions, should
“move our hearts to holy dialogue, grounded in respect,” he said,
adding that it is something that needs everyone’s dedication.

violence to fall and civility to rise, everyone must do a part,” he said.

That message was not lost
on parishioners who sat in the side pews or in metal folding chairs in the back
of the church during the evening Mass in the church, which was built in 1888.

bishops wanted to be visual,” said community activist and parishioner Ray
Kelly after Mass, who said their presence sent a message not just to this
parish, but well beyond it.

here restored hope,” he told Catholic News Service, after taking pictures
of some parishioners at the back of church after the Mass was over.

parishioner Iris Turner said seeing the nation’s bishops in the church where
her great grandparents worshipped and where she has been firmly rooted since
receiving her first sacraments was an experience that “filled my

who attended the now-closed parish school from first grade through eighth grade, as
did a friend she sat by at the Mass, said she hoped the bishops’ visit “would
put St. Peter Claver on the map.”

bishops chose the church, named for the patron saint of slaves and ministry to
African-Americans, to show support for parishes in neighborhoods that have seen
rising violence. They picked the brick church — that sits across the street
from boarded-up and windowless buildings — on the recommendation of the new
task force of the U.S. bishops to promote peace in U.S. communities following
the violence in the nation this summer after shootings of and by police officers
in in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Minneapolis; and Dallas.

spring, St. Peter Claver was in the middle of violent protests during riots
where there was looting, multiple fires and buildings destroyed in response to
the death of Freddie Gray, the African-American man who died a week after he
was seriously injured while in police custody.

The church, a fixture in Gray’s
neighborhood, was a site of prayer immediately after the riots. Its
parishioners held community meetings at the parish center and were on the streets
involved in cleaning up broken glass and debris.

Archbishop Lori, who led a
prayer service at the church after the riots, told the bishops that St. Peter
Claver’s parishioners were immediately at work to “reclaim the

“This parish
is that field hospital envisioned by Pope Francis,” he added.

who arrived at the Nov. 14 Mass after work, saying she wouldn’t miss it, is
proud that her parish is such an integral part of the community. “We never
moved out,” she said. “We’re still here feeding the homeless,
visiting the sick.”

is also optimistic that racism will not always exist. “I’m not
hating,” she said, adding that she believes “God is walking on this
earth” and “is in charge.”

the end of Mass, parishioners did not rush out and head home but lingered in the
pews talking before making their way through a side door to a reception at the
parish hall.

Pauline Fleming, wearing a maroon St. Peter Claver sweatshirt, was an exception.
She wanted to greet bishops at the end of Mass so she left before the end of
Mass walking right past a protester outside the church yelling into a megaphone
about what he felt was wrong with the Catholic Church and its leaders.

was joined on the sidewalk by a few other protesters standing by the buses
waiting for the bishops who were holding banners in support of women’s
ordination to the priesthood and saying the church should “stop
persecuting gays.”

man carrying the “stop persecuting gays” banner walked onto the altar
with it during the homily and was escorted away.

who had to speak loudly over the megaphoned protester said the Mass was
“great for the city and for our parish.”

was a blessing,” she said, adding: “It’s hard to put into

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Zimmermann on Twitter @carolmaczim.


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