Friars Honor African Ancestry Culture in the Church

Maria Hayes Friar News

SILVER SPRING, Md. — Holy Name Province friars and members of other Franciscan and religious communities welcomed 25 black Catholic men for a weekend of prayer and community last month, just after Christmas.

Men of both African and African-American descent traveled from as far away as Buffalo, N.Y., and St. Louis to participate in the Go Down Moses retreat to learn about, discuss and celebrate the importance of African ancestry culture in the Catholic Church.

Four members of varied religious orders — Fr. Fernand Cheri, OFM, of Sacred Heart Province, Gerald Hopeck, OFM, Br. Gerard Jordan, O. Praem, and Br. Benedict Kelley, FBP — led and planned the retreat, which took place Dec. 27 to 30 at Holy Family Spiritual Center. Fr. Charles Paine, OFM, of Sacred Heart Province and Paul Williams, OFM, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Wilmington, also participated.

Delving into History
On Saturday, the retreat participants visited the Franciscan Holy Land Monastery in Washington, where they received a tour and participated in a special prayer service in honor of the Christ child in the Bethlehem Crypt, according to Gerald. The group also visited the National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, where they had a prayer service in the Our Lady of Africa Chapel.

The day continued with a trip to the National Monument of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., where the group held a prayer service that both recognized the importance of civil rights and honored their ancestors. At the White House, the men prayed for peace, the nation’s leaders and for continued vocations to the Church, especially in the African-American community.

Paul and the parishioners of St. Joseph’s Parish welcomed the group on Sunday for Mass. Br. Gerard gave a reflection on Fr. Augustus Toltan and asked the community to pray for his canonization as the first African American priest in America.

“We all learned that the Franciscans helped make it possible for him to study in Rome, since no seminary would welcome a person of African descent at the time,” said Gerald.

Sharing Faith and Community
Following Mass, the parishioners welcomed the group to a lunch celebration, after which a woman named Barbara, a fourth-generation parishioner, explained the history of the parish and the struggles she has endured as a black Catholic.

“Her testimony and witness and love of her Church and the first black pastor was the highlight for me,” said Gerald, a member of the HNP African Ancestry Committee.

Later, the group held an evening of faith sharing.

“They asked important questions, such as ‘why does the black family have a hard time staying together?’ and ‘why do African Americans have a hard time working together?’” said Gerald. “One retreat participant said, ‘This was a powerful experience for me, being a black man.”

Fr. Charlie Paine, OFM, found hope in the retreat discussions.

“This was a great experience with men of high caliber,” he observed. “It was great to see men from Africa, African American and Anglo American backgrounds working together to help sustain the black Catholic Church. The numbers might not be large, but they are powerful. We must continue to dialogue with and support one another.”

The retreat closed with Mass. Each participant received an Ethiopian crucifix with an African bone bead blessed in Assisi. The men were encouraged to live out their vocation to the fullest and support one another in each other’s vocation.

This was the second “Go Down Moses” retreat organized in part by the HNP African Ancestry Committee. Last year’s event attracted more than two dozen men from around the United States and was “a great effort of interprovincial collaboration,” according to Gerald.

 Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province.