e-mail us
Black Catholics raise joyful noise in the Bronx

Bronx, N.Y.

Making a joyful noise unto the Lord has been the hallmark of the St. Augustine Gospel Choir in the South Bronx for almost 30 years. Last month the jazz quartet of St. Augustine Catholic Church in New Orleans joined the 18-voice Bronx choir for a liturgy that lasted three hours and brought 500 worshipers to their feet -- singing, clapping, embracing and blessing one another in decibels that rang in heaven.

Powerful rhythms and harmonies seemed at times to shake the church’s rafters. Performers and worshipers at the Feb. 16 “pre-Mardi Gras Jazz Mass” went on to enjoy a soul food luncheon. With little time for digestion, choir members changed from their turquoise and gold robes to dresses and dashikis rich in African design and color, and continued to sing, shout and clap hands in a concert that filled the afternoon, church and neighborhood with glad sounds of praise.

A blizzard prevented members of the St. Augustine Gospel Choir in Washington, D.C., from joining the celebration.

At the start of Mass, Fr. Thomas Fenlon, pastor of the Bronx parish, pointed to the statue of St. Augustine, the fifth-century bishop and doctor of the church from Hippo near ancient Carthage in North Africa, and announced that the special Black History Month celebration would be in his honor.

The St. Augustine churches in New Orleans, Washington and the Bronx began before the Civil War. A group of free blacks living in the Faubourg Treme section of New Orleans built the first of the three in 1841. The Washington parish traces its heritage to 1858 and to the efforts of a group of dedicated emancipated black Catholics.

The Bronx parish began in 1849, but the church was destroyed by fire in 1894. Three months later construction began on the present edifice, which was dedicated in 1895. In 1906 a school was added; today it educates 230 youngsters.

Although the Bronx parish was largely German and Irish during its first century, the earlier immigrants headed for the suburbs after World War II. Black families, most of them Protestants, moved in. St. Augustine’s pastor at the time, Fr. Cornelius Drew, attracted 550 new Catholics to the church, largely through his classes designed specifically for African-Americans. Many of the original black families have remained loyal St. Augustine parishioners.

Today the parish has about 500 names in the book and counts “350 on a good day,” said Fenlon, who became pastor in July. Sixty percent of churchgoers trace their heritage to African roots; 40 percent are Hispanic, mostly of Puerto Rican and Dominican ancestry.

Fenlon noted the many churches in the neighborhood. “The church gives faith and hope to those who don’t have hope.”

The parish serves the Bronx House of Detention, a prison for 700 men located on a boat. It also has outreach to a 200-bed women’s shelter that is across the street from the church. Every Monday morning some 200 families visit the parish pantry to receive a bag of groceries from Bob Blair and his volunteers.

The parish and the neighborhood both challenge the cliché that “when you step outside in the South Bronx, you’re in Fort Apache,” said Fr. John Gilvey, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales. Gilvey, a speech and communications professor at St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn, resides at St. Augustine and assists on the weekend. He calls the parishioners “family.”

“They are the most attentive audience I’ve ever preached to and are very vocal in their support,” he said.

Gilvey said he’d always wanted to learn how to celebrate the liturgy the way African-Americans do. Fr. Keith Outlaw, the former pastor, “mentored me in the process,” he said. “He told me to watch what’s going on and move into it when I feel comfortable.”

At the jazz Mass it was clear that Gilvey and Fenlon both were comfortable moving rhythmically with the musicians and singers as they processed in to the tune of “This Little Light of Mine” and then joined in the stirring hymn, “I Can Go to God in Prayer.”

The musicians performed the penitential rite in Calypso style. Cantor Brenda Harris of St. Augustine in New Orleans led the responsorial psalm.

Before the Mass ended, the performers and the entire congregation united their voices in “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Down by the River Side” and sang “We Shall Overcome” as the memorial acclamation. Outlaw and Bronx Gospel singer Deniece Wonge offered a closing duet.

Fenlon invited the New Orleans and Washington artists to the church after the Bronx Gospel Choir performed at the Louisiana church last year. He also asked Divine Word Fr. Jerome LeDoux, pastor of the New Orleans church, to preside and preach. LeDoux, 73, did both and also danced exuberantly during several hymns.

Three of the four New Orleans musicians represented three generations of one black family. Keyboardist Betty Williams is the mother of drummer Herlin Riley and grandmother of Joseph Williams, trombonist and trumpeter.

Leon Vaughn, a vocalist and keyboardist, said he loves to praise the Lord with his music. The Baptist singer said he is on the road half the Sundays of each year. His favorite hymn remains “Amazing Grace.” “It’s very touching. It gets to the inner man of everybody. It tells you that you’ve come so far by grace. Grace is nothing you got, it’s something you get.”

Community is the abundant grace of St. Augustine in the Bronx, said Roger Repohl, parish administrator. “Parishioners in the inner city don’t keep to themselves. They’re not a bunch of strangers coming together on Sunday.

“Community is all they have. They’re very hospitable and caring. They just give their blood for this church,” said Repohl, one of four white parishioners and the church’s chief administrator for five years.

“I’m a utility pole,” Repohl said, describing his job, which includes seeing that staff, computers, workers and the parish ledgers are all in good order. The $300,000 operating budget receives a $150,000 subsidy from the archdiocese annually.

On Sundays, Repohl directs the choir for the English Mass at nearby Our Lady of Victory Parish and plays piano at its Spanish Mass. He also has a second career as beekeeper to St. Augustine’s three hives that last year produced a thousand pounds of “sweet honey from the South Bronx.”

He learned beekeeping from St. Augustine’s pastor emeritus, Fr. Robert Jeffers. The job is a “labor of love,” because bees are “happy, happy creatures, who are so focused on their task and have no interest in human beings.”

As many as a quarter million bees have colonized the flowering trees and plants in the Genesis Park Community Garden located next to the church. “No one has been stung except the beekeeper,” said Repohl, who has gathered a half dozen “neighborhood kids with a gentle spirit,” dressed them in bee suits and taught them how to harvest the honey.

“Send us your social workers, your physicians,” Repohl said. “We’ll take them.”

Gospel singers and jazz musicians need not apply.

Patricia Lefevere is an NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 2003