O'Connell students explore black Catholic history

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Earlier this year, Bishop O’Connell High School religion teacher David Owens, organized a field trip to Washington to visit three historic African-American Catholic churches: Holy Comforter–St. Cyprian, St. Teresa of Avila and Our Lady of Perpetual Help. In all, 145 students participated.

The students’ first stop was Holy Comforter–St. Cyprian, located just east of Capitol Hill. The group learned about the design of the church, which depicts heaven, the Twelve Apostles, the 12 tribes, the 12 patriarchs and the Cloud of Witnesses as reflected in the books of Hebrews and Revelation. In addition, there was a mix of art styles, both medieval style paintings of saints on the walls and icons of saints. The words written in Latin over the arch of the vestibule read, “The Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the Earth,” intended as a message of inclusion for all peoples.

Msgr. Charles Pope, pastor, shared more on the 120-year Jesuit relationship to black Catholics in Washington. The students learned about a tradition of “call and response” within Mass, which draws the worshipper into the sermon on a different level.

Before leaving St. Cyprian, Msgr. Pope addressed the graduating seniors on how to live out their faith as young Catholics. “Don't be a bored believer.  Don’t be the ‘frozen chosen’ or an ‘undercover believer.’ Practice your virtues and good habits. Work hard. Pray daily.  Read your scriptures. Get to church. Choose to draw close to Jesus in your faith,” he said.

The students continued their trip by visiting two churches just across the Anacostia River. Their first stop was St. Teresa of Avila, where Msgr. Raymond Gerard East, pastor, shared the origin of the artwork and history of his church. Artistic depictions of the Stations of the Cross carved in African spiritual tradition were stunning in color and design, as were the statues and paintings throughout the church. 

They also visited Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a more modern church, perched atop a hill with sweeping views of Washington. Father Thomas Frank, pastor, wrapped up the day by sharing more on the history of his church, giving the group a greater appreciation for the worship and faith journey of black Catholics in this area.  

“My Mom is Catholic and my Dad is African Methodist Episcopal so I get two perspectives.” said senior Madison Wilson. “I loved this (field trip) and it gave me such a different perspective of the history of the black Catholic Church and American history. I really felt the spirit. It was awesome.”

“I love gospel music,” said senior Angie Fashanu. “It was exciting to hear how the church has a tradition of gospel music. I am coming back for an 11 a.m. Mass.”

A second field trip on Black Catholic history is planned for later in May, when a group of seniors will visit the Archdiocese of Baltimore.  

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017