St. Augustine’s Church and Howard University Catholic Ministry Celebrate Black Catholic History Month – Catholic Standard

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The pews at St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., were packed as attendees gathered for Mass to commemorate Black Catholic History Month, as well as 75 years of Catholic ministry at Howard University on November 13. Cardinal Wilton Gregory celebrated Mass along with concelebrants Father Patrick Smith, pastor of St. Augustine, and Father Robert Boxie III, priest chaplain of Howard University in Washington, D.C.

St. Augustine Parish, with its neo-Gothic style church, is considered “the mother church of black Catholics in the nation’s capital.” Founded in 1858 by free men and women of color under the patronage of Blessed Martin de Porres, the original parishioners first attended masses in a chapel in the basement of what is now St. Matthew’s Cathedral in the center -city of Washington.

In an interview after Mass, Father Patrick Smith said it was unfortunate that the history of black Catholics had to be specified as his own history, as he said it was “truly the history of the Church Catholic in the United States”. He said “in ancient times, when the story was told, we were left behind…so (this Mass) is really an invitation for everyone to celebrate”.

The celebration began at noon with songs of praise and worship led by the St. Augustine Gospel Choir and a performance by St. Augustine liturgical dancers and members of the Howard University Dance Ministry.

Pictured above, members of Howard University’s Dance Ministry perform before the Nov. 13 Black Catholic History Month Mass at St. Augustine’s Church in Washington, D.C. Pictured above Below, musicians and choir members take part in the annual Black Catholic History Month mass (CS Photos/Tyler Orsburn)

Mass attendees included parishioners, Howard students and alumni, students of St. Augustine Catholic School, nuns from the Servants of the Holy Child Jesus and Knights of St. Peter Claver and their ladies auxiliaries.

During his homily at Mass, Cardinal Gregory said the month of November should not just be a time to celebrate the historic achievements of black Catholics, to honor black saints or to “reflect on the tragedies of yesterday, endured too long”. On the contrary, Cardinal Gregory said, “this is a difficult time for those of us who are now called to write the history of black Catholics in our own contemporary world.”

The cardinal said the history of black Catholics offers a time for “Catholics of color everywhere today to follow the fine examples of those holy men and women of color who have lived our faith with such devotion in order to be considered as saints to the Church of our God”.

The Cardinal went on to say that when the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus met in 1990 to discuss choosing a month to celebrate Black Catholic history, they wanted “a specific time for us to rejoice in our proud and courageous heritage and faith”.

Cardinal Gregory ended his homily saying that the story tells the story of brave believers and “it also challenges us to go and do the same.”

In the photos above and below, people pray during the Black Catholic History Month mass at St. Augustine’s Church in Washington, DC, on November 13. (CS Photo/Tyler Orsburn)

In an interview, Monica Gray, Liturgy Coordinator at St. Augustine Parish, served as one of the Mass coordinators. She explained the relationship between St. Augustine and Howard University.

“Because St. Augustine’s is a historically black Catholic church and we are close to Howard University, we have always been a resource to them for Catholic ministry,” Gray said.

Gray believes it is important to reflect on the history of black Catholics.

“The long history of black Catholics is not well known and often ignored, so people don’t realize that African American Catholics are some of the oldest practicing Catholics in this country, our history goes back hundreds of years, unfortunately in the days of slavery,” Gray said.

Gray discussed his own family’s history with Catholicism, since his paternal side of the family was Catholic since they were slaves held by Jesuit priests on the east coast of Maryland.

“I think for a lot of us, it’s a time to remember that honestly, we held on,” Gray said.

Father Robert Boxie III, the Catholic ministry priest chaplain at Howard University’s Washington campus, speaks during the Black Catholic History Month mass at St. Augustine’s Church on Nov. 13. During the mass, Howard University Campus Catholic Ministry was recognized for its 75e anniversary of serving the students there. (SC Photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Father Boxie, Howard University’s chaplain for three years, said in an interview that “the black Catholic community is a special community, it’s a very spiritual community, it’s a gifted community, it’s a faith-filled community, and it is a community that has not always been recognized or recognized for the gifts and for the contributions that we bring to the Church.

He said one of the biggest misconceptions about black Catholics is that many people don’t realize they exist.

“It’s almost being a double minority if you will, most people think if you’re black and religious you’re probably Protestant, but that’s not always the case. We have this incredible heritage of black Catholics that goes back to the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts of the Apostlesand we also claim, as black Catholics, all those early church fathers and mothers in Africa,” Fr Boxie said.

The Howard University priest’s chaplain said it comes down to an important distinction when reconciling the Catholic Church’s role in slavery.

“A lot of people question that, but that’s the beauty of black Catholics is that we’ve been able to distinguish between message and messenger. The messengers brought the message of Jesus Christ and salvation and faith. However, our ancestors and elders recognize that what they actually preached and taught was not in fact what they did,” Fr Boxie said.

In the future, Father Boxie hopes events like Mass will inspire parishioners to spread their faith.

“I love being black and Catholic, I think it’s the best of everything the Church has to offer, and I think it’s a black Catholic time where hopefully we can realize the heritage spiritual and heritage that we all have as people of faith and be renewed in this evangelistic zeal to come out and share this incredible heritage that has been given to us,” Fr. Boxie said.

Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory celebrates Mass for Black Catholic History Month at St. Augustine’s Church in Washington, DC on November 13. (CS Photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Ali Mumbach, a graduate sociology student at Howard University and a graduate campus ministry assistant working with Father Boxie, said she was very inspired by the cardinal’s homily “and just the fact that National Month of Black Catholic history is not just about what happened in the past, but about the history we make today.

Mumbach said she is coming to terms with what it means to her to be black and Catholic.

“I recently discovered my black Catholic heritage and my faith,” Mumbach said. “[My own] self-discovery… I grew up in the Catholic Church, but my parish back home is predominantly white and Hispanic, so I’m just beginning to know what it means to be black and Catholic.

After the mass, the participants were invited to share a spaghetti lunch and a celebratory cake.

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