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First Mass celebrated at Lexington's St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in new building

The historic Black Catholic parish in Kentucky had been worshiping in its parish hall following the demolition of its former church in 2015.

The Dedication Mass for St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Lexington, Kentucky on Sunday, April 16. (Catholic Extension)

On Sunday, April 16, the faithful of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Lexington, Kentucky, did something that had been impossible for nearly eight years, following vandalism, demolition, and many moons of planning, praying, and fundraising.

They celebrated Mass in a proper church all their own.

In the presence of Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv., more than 400 assembled worshipers marched in style into a new $3.2 million edifice, led by their local unit of Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary—most fitting for one of Kentucky’s oldest Black Catholic parishes, and one of the first in the world named for St. Peter Claver, the famed Spanish Jesuit priest.

“Let Us Go Rejoicing to the House of the Lord” rang out from the congregation and a full gospel choir, accompanied by African drums and the spirit of a community that waited 19 months for construction to be completed and for the Dedication Mass to arrive, though the latter was delayed more than once.

“While we say it’s a new church, I want to remind everyone of the old pieces we incorporated into the building,” said architect Maureen Peters of Pearson & Peters Architects, reminding the worshippers of items from the 67-year-old church that was demolished in 2015. Since then, the parish had been worshiping in its nearby parish hall.

Old is now mixed with new, including custom Afrocentric Catholic artwork and a prominent Black crucifix designed “so the congregation can see themselves in the sacred artwork,” according to a construction update provided last year.

“As new as this space is, as clean as this space is, as fresh as this space is, and as exciting as it is to walk into this new building, how many think it already feels like home?” Stowe asked the crowd, receiving a roar of applause in response.

“The Church is already here.”

Fr Norman Fischer, who has pastored the parish since 2006, noted the synergy of the liturgy, being both a one-of-a-kind Mass for a new church building and also a celebration of Divine Mercy Sunday, in which Catholics worldwide reiterate their dependence of God.

“Jesus, we trust in you,” he said in remarks following Communion, pluralizing for the St. Peter Claver community what St. Maria Faustina famously said of herself in the 20th century upon receiving her apparitions of Jesus.

“We’ve come a mighty long way from a little shotgun church in 1948, but even before then on the second floor of a convent.”

Members of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, which originally founded a Black Catholic school where the church met for decades beginning in the late 19th century, were present for Sunday’s Mass. They, too, received commendation from the crowd, alongside past and current clergy from the parish.

Also remembered was the parish’s former edifice, which is commemorated not only in the new church’s trappings but also in its very foundations.

“This altar and sanctuary, as Maureen Peters was able to design, is standing over the sanctuary of the old church,” Fischer noted.

“I just was able to hear the joys of our ancestors… I could hear them say, ‘You did it! We knew you could. We are with you.’”

The work for Fischer and the increasingly diverse St. Peter Claver community now continues, with Daily Masses having commenced on Tuesday alongside normal parish happenings in the new edifice. Bishop Stowe’s remarks highlighted the renewed call for the parish to be a beacon of light in the Bluegrass region.

“The living presence of Jesus must break out into the world, and it starts right here,” he said.

Fr Fischer, reflecting on the enormity of Sunday’s accomplishment, said that his journey to help rebuild the parish—beginning with a vision 17 years ago from Bishop Emeritus Ronald Gainer—is a dream now fulfilled.

“I'm so humble and grateful,” he told BCM.

In his words, the Little Church with a Big Heart is now the Big Church—with the same big heart.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.

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