The Archdiocese of Washington’s Gospel Mass Choir was honored during a Nov. 10 Mass for Black Catholic History Month at St. Joseph Parish in Largo. The principal celebrant of the Mass was that parish’s pastor, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell, Jr., who was joined by Josephite Father Thomas Frank, the pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Washington.

The evening began with praise and worship music sung by the choir, which was established in 1983 following the archdiocese’s first Black Catholic Revival. The choir includes members from various parishes in the archdiocese, who come together to sing at archdiocesan and parish events, including the Mass that Pope Benedict XVI celebrated at Nationals Park during his visit to Washington in 2008.

“We are so thrilled that so many brothers and sisters are here for a Mass that honors all of us…the faith we have, the faith we will not lose, the faith we carry with us every day of our lives, (and) the faith we honor in song,” said Bishop Campbell.

To begin the Mass, Sandra Coles-Bell, the program director for the Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach, read a quote from Servant of God Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration who lived from 1937-1990.

“What does it mean to be black and Catholic? It means that I come to my church fully functioning…. I bring myself, my black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I’m worth, all I hope to become. I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African-American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as a gift to the Church,” said Coles-Bell, quoting Sister Bowman.

The Mass celebrated that cultural heritage that Black Catholics bring to the Church, and in his homily, Bishop Campbell spoke of several Black Catholics whose lives are examples for everyone in the Church today. These people, he said, lived lives that imitated Jesus through self-giving love, even in the midst of suffering.

St. Martin de Porres, for example, belonged to the Dominican order as a servant, because a black man could not take full religious vows. Despite this discrimination, he still dedicated his life to serving the poor, Bishop Campbell noted.

He also noted the legacy of Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, an African-American sister who founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious order for women of African descent. These sisters opened Catholic schools for African American girls, starting in Baltimore.

“That lady saw Christ in each person,” aid Bishop Campbell.

Likewise, Venerable Mother Henriette Delille founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans, who educated slave children when doing so was illegal.

“Black Catholic History is an integral part of the history of the United States of America,” said Bishop Campbell. “All of these Americans hoped for justice due to all humans (who are) equal in the eyes of their God…They trusted in God’s grace for them and their nation. We are called to do the same today as Black Catholics.”

Bishop Campbell added, “God often answers our prayers through others,” and encouraged people to see God in everyone they meet, just as these Black Catholics did. After Mass, the congregation had the opportunity to venerate relics of African saints, which are kept under the altar at St. Joseph and were put on display for this service.

At the conclusion of the Mass, Bishop Campbell and Coles-Bell presented the Black Catholic History Month Award to Lynné Gray and Henry Herrera, the two directors of the choir.

“If we did not know what Black Catholic music is, we know it now,” said Coles-Bell. “Music is our history…it has spoken to us, it has made us, it has kept us.”

Joan Monroe, a parishioner at St. Benedict the Moor in Washington, said singing in the Gospel Mass Choir brings her joy.

“It wakes up your soul, it wakes up your body, it wakes up your spirit,” she said, adding that she imagines God was in heaven singing and dancing along with the music.

“…In singing, you bless others,” said Monroe. “You bring the Spirit out into the open.”