Black Catholics celebrate their gifts at ‘soulful reunion’

KINGSTREE — More than 300 Catholics from across the state gathered Oct. 14, “family reunion style,” to celebrate the gifts that Black Catholics bring to the church.

The Black Catholic Heritage Celebration is an annual event coordinated by the Office of Ethnic Ministries under the guidance of Franciscan Father Paul Williams and its director, Kathleen Merritt. This year’s event was themed “A Catholic’s Soulful Family Reunion.” It included a choir competition, a reflection on the sacraments and the National Black Catholic Congress declaration of principles, the celebration of the Eucharist, and tours to the Shrine of Our Lady of Joyful Hope and Springbank Spirituality Center’s historic slave cemetery.

Bishop Robert J. Baker celebrated Mass at the event. He also spoke to the participants about the importance of family and particularly the importance of programs for youth. He referred to the Scouting program as an excellent resource for boys and girls.

The Kingstree Recreation Center was transformed into a fun area for youth with games and activities outside and a place of worship inside. Father Jeffrey Kendall, pastor of St. Ann in Kingstree, St. Philip, the Apostle in Lake City and St. Patrick Mission in Johnsonville, assisted the Office of Ethnic Ministries in organizing a group of committee members to plan the event. Sherman Gaskins served as the chair of the planning committee. The Knights of Peter Claver, the Ladies Auxiliary and members of the S.C. Council of Catholic Women also attended the event.

Franciscan Sister Catherine Noecker, principal of St. Anthony of Padua in Greenville, described the day as one that invited people into a spiritual calmness.

“Soul is the gift of black Catholics, and anytime you gather a large group of black Catholics it becomes ‘soulful,’ ” she said.

The St. Martin de Porres adult choir and school choir from Columbia won first place in the choir competition. St James the Greater Mission in Walterboro and St. Jude in Sumter placed second and third in the adult competition. Father Williams, one of the judges, said that music is a part of heritage and a way for African-Americans to express themselves from a cultural perspective in the Catholic church.

Sister Roberta Fulton, a School Sister of St. Mary Namur and principal of St. Martin de Porres School, led the Annual Day of Reflection activity for the National Black Catholics Congress. Attendance was mandatory for all delegates planning to attend the national congress, which will be July 12-15, 2007, in Buffalo, N.Y. Sister Roberta spoke of the sacraments and how they relate to people’s lives by looking at their relationship to the declaration of principles that were presented at Congress IX in Chicago, Ill., several years ago. These principles focus on Africa, Catholic education, HIV/AIDS, parish life, racism, social justice, spirituality and youth, and young adults.

Brie Merritt, a youth from St. Anthony of Padua in Greenville, found the activity challenging and said that it created a better understanding of how the sacraments enable Catholics to address real issues in the church. Charlotte House, diocesan team leader for the congress, was on hand to provide information for delegates interested in attending the event next year.

This year’s celebration attracted a larger group of religious, priests, and deacons than previous events. This was partly attributable to the location’s proximity to various ministries that serve African-American populations.

History came alive again as participants saw where Father Patrick Quinlan and Father David Walsh drove around in the motor chapel evangelizing African-Americans in the Williams burg County area during the late 1940s.

The Dominican Sisters of Springbank Spirituality Center in Kingstree joined in the celebration and provided a tour to the unmarked graves of slaves. Father Freddy Washington ended the day at the center with a blessing of the graves.

Kathleen Merritt is the director of the Office of Ethnic Ministries for the Diocese of Charleston.