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Msgr Paul Jervis, promoter of anti-racist's sainthood cause, dead at 69

The Guyanese-born priest came to the U.S. at 19, serving the Diocese of Brooklyn for 40+ years and championing the now-Servant of God Bernard Quinn.

Msgr Paul W. Jervis of the Diocese of Brooklyn, who died this week in New York. (Diocese of Brooklyn)

Msgr Paul W. Jervis, a popular Black Catholic priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, has died in New York at the age of 69. He succumbed to a repeat bout with cancer on Tuesday, September 5.

The news was announced by the Brooklyn Vicariate Office of Black Catholic Concerns, which celebrated Jervis’ 40th ordination anniversary with a gala dinner earlier this year.

“From the moment he received his first assignment, this Guyanese-born man of God knew that he wanted to make a difference, both in his Church and in his communities,” the office posted to social media, recounting remarks made at the event.

“During his many years serving the Church, no matter where he has been, or who he has ministered to, Monsignor Jervis is undeniably a priest who has left an indelible mark with everyone he has encountered.”

Born in 1953 in Georgetown, Guyana, Jervis was raised as a Catholic, attending St. Pius X Catholic Church and volunteering as an altar server; it was during this time that he first heard the call to the priesthood. He immigrated to the United States at the age of 19 and there entered seminary, being ordained in 1983. That same year he was assigned to St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, the oldest Black parish in the Diocese of Brooklyn—today the Blackest diocese in the United States.

Jervis was taken by the story of Msgr Bernard J. Quinn, a pioneering Irish-American priest who founded St. Peter Claver in the early 20th century, using it as an outpost for widespread ministry to the Black community. Among Quinn’s parishioners were the future music stars Bill and Pearl Bailey, and Lena Horne. Quinn also started the first local orphanage for Black children, the Little Flower House of Providence—later burned to the ground twice by the Ku Klux Klan. Quinn would later be credited as the man who “started the Civil Rights Movement in the Diocese of Brooklyn.”

Jervis soon became the late Quinn’s most ardent promoter, interviewing his contemporaries and authoring a book entitled “Quintessential Priest: The Life of Father Bernard J. Quinn” in 2005. Jervis was made a monsignor by Pope Benedict XVI four years later, and the cause for canonization for Msgr Quinn was opened in 2019 by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio; fervently attached to the cause for the rest of his life, Jervis served as the diocesan postulator.

During his more than 40 years of ministry, Jervis also served at various other parishes in Brooklyn and Queens, including St. Francis of Assisi-St. Blaise, St. Paul the Apostle, St. Catherine of Genoa, St. Clare, and St. Fortunata. He was also a chaplain for Bishop Loughlin High, a Black Catholic school in Fort Greene.

“He will be remembered by us for his dry wit, spirited homilies, [and] listening ear, amongst other admirable traits, all to the glory and service of Almighty God,” wrote Fr Daniel O. Kingsley, the current pastor of St. Clare, who met Jervis as a seminarian.

“Since then, I have known you will find no greater advocate and cheerleader for Guyanese culture and people.”

Jervis and his fellow culture-bearers were active in organizing and promoting the annual Guyana Mass, which catered to the fifth-largest immigrant community in New York City. The roughly 140,000 Guyanese diasporans in New York City are mostly centered in Brooklyn and Queens.

In a 2021 interview, Jervis spoke of his ministry and his call to justice and anti-racism in a world that often seems unrelenting in its prejudices and unbelief.

“During the [first] thirty-seven years of my priesthood, I learned that my task is not necessarily to convert the world for Jesus Christ but to make his presence visible to others through my ordinary day-to-day priestly ministry,” he said, also adding comments about his writing.

“[My book] is not about obliterating racism, which seems that it will always be with us as long as we human beings live on this earth. The book shows that individuals can make a profound impact as Msgr. Quinn, who combated racism in his time by his all-out embrace of African Americans whom he loved as Jesus commanded us to love each other.”

A wake for Msgr Jervis has been scheduled for Monday, September 11, at St. Francis of Assisi-St. Blaise in Prospect Lefferts Gardens at 4pm ET, followed by a vigil Mass at 7pm. A viewing will take place on Tuesday at 9am, followed by a funeral Mass with Bishop Robert J. Brennan at 11am.

The family asks that in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions be made to the cause of canonization for Servant of God Bernard J. Quinn. A donation form is available online; checks and sympathy cards can be sent to the parish at 319 Maple Street, Brooklyn, New York 11225.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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