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Our Lady of Charity in Brooklyn to celebrate 120th anniversary

One of Brooklyn's most historic Black Catholic parishes is marking its anniversary, including latter decades of lively liturgy and lay leadership.

Parishioners read during a Mass at Our Lady of Catholic Church in Brooklyn in 2022. (David Duncan/Facebook)

Our Lady of Charity Catholic Church in Brooklyn will mark 120 years with a series of events this weekend, celebrating a longstanding history of service and Black inculturation in the Crown Heights neighborhood.

A three-day revival concluded on Thursday night with Fr Robert Seay, OFM, a former pastor of the parish—its last, in fact, just one of many intricacies in its storied history.

“I was the second African-American pastor at Our Lady of Charity, after Fr James 'Jim' Goode,” he told BCM, noting that while his own ministry was successful, it built upon his predecessor’s firm foundation.

“It may seem that I am tooting my own horn, but it was during my ministry that the church grew into what it is today, developing many of the programs that were needed at that time, especially with the Black Catholic Movement in the 80s and 90s.”

The church was one of several notable cases during that era, when African-American inculturation swept through the U.S. Catholic church, fomenting now-commonplace innovations such as Gospel Mass, Afrocentric Catholic spirituality, and the fiery preaching style associated with many clerics serving Black Catholics.

Our Lady of Charity was at one point noted in The New York Times for its parishioners’ tacit support of the rogue Black priest George Stallings Jr., who had recently broken away from the Catholic Church to start his own Black-focused Christian denomination. This marked the beginning of the end of the Black Catholic Movement, but at the time in 1989, OLC was part of the lingering boom and one of two churches in the Brooklyn Diocese with a Black priest, namely Seay.

“We successfully built a church with an emphasis on a strong lay leadership, which was phenomenal and is still functioning today,” he said this week. 

The parish’s history stretches back to the days of widespread European immigration to the United States, including various Catholic ethnic groups that quickly filled the boroughs of New York City. OLC was founded for the Italians in the early 20th century, with a church dedicated in 1908.

Our Lady of Charity Catholic Church in 1908. (Brooklyn Public Library)

Like many so-called “national” Catholic parishes, however, the community at OLC eventually shifted with new demographics, as Brooklyn became a hub for African-American refugees in the Great Migration and, later, Black immigrants from Haiti, elsewhere in the Caribbean, and beyond.

By the time of Fr Goode’s arrival in the 1970s, parishioners were well on their way in integrating Black spirituality into their Catholic practice, a relatively new idea for New World Catholics in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.

“The members were desirous of expressing themselves through their natural culture as African Americans,” reads a parish history from OLC.

“This collective total could be expressed in their unique manner of speaking, writing, dancing, singing, praising God, acting and behaving in ways that are innate to Black people in America, and characteristic of people of African descent living anywhere in the West.”

In those days, according to Seay and others, a three-hour Sunday Mass was no rare occurrence—as was the case upon the NYT’s visit in the late 80s—and the parish’s reputation for spirited gospel music was known all around. The choir even sang in the St. Peter's Basilica in Rome under the direction of parish music director M. Roger Holland II, who would soon be known nationwide for his Gospel Mass setting, “The Sound of My People.”

Seay himself became a civic figure of note in New York City as a whole, advocating against racism and serving in official capacities for the mayor. Even so, his thirteen-year tenure at OLC ended unceremoniously in 1986, when internal turmoil among the church’s lay leadership brought several resignations, including his own.

“This was the first time in twenty-two years that Our Lady of Charity was without its own pastor,” according to the church’s own description.

The parish came under the purview of the pastor of another local parish, St. Matthew’s, and was eventually merged with it in 2007, having never received another full-time pastor of its own.

Lay leadership has been a theme ever since at OLC, where a livestreamed anniversary Mass will be celebrated on Sunday, October 8, at 10am ET. The liturgy will be celebrated by Bishop Robert J. Brennan in memory of Fr Goode, who passed away in 2022 after 50 years as a priest.

The church’s members will also host a commemorative dinner dance at 9pm on Saturday at Glen Terrace Caterers in Flatlands, gathering friends and family for a night of fellowship.

Welcome back to the church as a revivalist on Wednesday and Thursday this week, Seay—now retired and 88 years old—says he is “proud and happy” for the enduring legacy of OLC, especially what they’ve been able to accomplish largely on their own.

“The efforts put into developing a church of lay leadership are still continuing with that same spirit. and perhaps is a model for the church today.”

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

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