Although the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States designated November as Black Catholic History Month nearly three decades ago, the Archdiocese of Washington recently included a new aspect to their annual Mass by recognizing the contributions of the local faithful with the Steadfast Witness Award.

At the Nov. 9 Black Catholic History Mass held at Holy Family Church in Hillcrest Heights, Maryland, the archdiocese presented the 2019 award to the local chapter of Sisters in the Spirit, a national organization empowering women to become involved in their parishes. The archdiocesan chapter was founded in 2001 and has grown to 155 members. “This liturgy is meant to celebrate, meant to acknowledge those who have gone before, those who we’ve stood on their shoulders,” said Sandra Coles-Bell, the program director for the archdiocesan Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach. 

Coles-Bell said Sisters in the Spirit help black women in building up parishes, where she said the real work of the Church begins.

Participants pray together during the Nov. 9 Black Catholic History Mass at Holy Family Church in Hillcrest Heights, Maryland. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

Additionally, she said the Black Catholic History Mass “offered a positive opportunity to celebrate the liturgy with our own spirituality” noting praise and worship music provided by the Archdiocesan Gospel Mass Choir, and liturgical dancers involved in the event. Washington Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville served as the main celebrant of the Mass and although unable to attend, Archbishop Wilton Gregory taped an audio message of welcome asking for prayers and assuring the participants “he was there in spirit.”

Coles-Bell said the Black Catholic History Mass affirms the unique role and perspective of the Black Catholic community. “My faith and my cultural background, my race – they make me who I am,” Coles-Bell said. By celebrating Black Catholic history, highlighting the gifts from the black community, the archdiocese recognizes the profound faith and vibrant spirituality of the culture, she said.

A liturgical dancer from St. Michael the Archangel Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, participates in the Black Catholic History Month Mass. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

“It should be celebrated 365 days a year,” Josephite Father Anthony Bozeman, homilist, told the Catholic Standard. The pastor of St. Raymond and St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in New Orleans added that “St. John Paul II recognized the Church is incomplete without the gift of part of her body – the black experience.”

The priest told participants “It’s time to get turned up,” both in celebration but also in acknowledgment of the work left to do. “It’s time to rise up to what God’s calling us to be… Catholic (and) universal,” Father Bozeman said.

Washington Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville gives Communion to a man at the Black Catholic History Month Mass at Holy Family Church in Hillcrest Heights. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

Thelma Adams, president of the local chapter of Sisters in the Spirit agreed. “While we are black, we are women of faith,” said Adams, a longtime parishioner of Holy Family. “We are all in concert of one God,” she added, noting that “our mandate is to become sisters in the kingdom.”

Adams said the archdiocesan chapter of Sisters in the Spirit began following a 2001 gathering of the National Black Sisters Conference. A few women returned to what was then the Office of Black Catholics and asked the Archdiocese of Washington to support a local group of Sisters in the Spirit. In the archdiocese, the group “focuses on events to get women engaged in the Church,” explained Adams. Today members of the local chapter of Sisters in the Spirit hail from the District, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and Florida.

Participants pray during the Black Catholic History Month Mass. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

With the support of the archdiocese, the Sisters in the Spirit regularly organize two annual events – the Triumph of the Cross in September and a spiritual retreat in April. Additionally, every other year the group plans a Juneteenth celebration marking the ending of slavery in the United States and has also organized prayer breakfasts. “If we have done our job,” Adams said, participants can “keep the fire going and show the fire of Christ” to others in their parishes. “We become workers in the vineyard,” said Adams who has remained active for 30 years in her parish: teaching religious education; holding confirmation preparation; participating in adult faith formation; assisting with RCIA; and serving as a sacristan. “As long as we can work in the vineyard, we are thankful,” she added.

Adams said she agreed with Father Bozeman’s homily about relying on faith during whatever struggles one may have in life -- including the many crosses carried by the Black Catholic and African American communities. “He was on point,” Adams said. “If we stay true and focused on God, we’re going to get through it.”

“We are children of God,” Adams said. “We’ve got to remember who we are and whose we are.”

Thelma Adams, the president of the Sisters in the Spirit in the Archdiocese of Washington, receives the 2019 Steadfast Witness Award on behalf of the group from Washington Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville at the Black Catholic History Month Mass held Nov. 9 at Holy Family Church in Hillcrest Heights, Maryland. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)