Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Future Saint Who Trod the Avenue?

The Daily News ran a fantastic article (seriously, read it) yesterday about Rev. Msgr. Bernard Quinn, an Irish-American from Newark who became a priest, fought in the trenches of France in World War I, and returned home to found Brooklyn's first African-American Catholic Church in an era when black Catholics were routinely barred from attending mass in NYC. He converted an old Protestant church at 29 Claver Place (a short block from Franklin Avenue), named it St. Peter Claver after the 17th-Century Spanish abolitionist priest, and ministered to the people of Bed-Stuy and North Crown Heights until his death in 1940, when 8,000 people lined the local streets in his honor. He didn't settle for being a pathbreaking Catholic parish priest, either, but founded an orphanage for homeless children in Wading River (despite the Klan burning his buildings down not once but twice!) that grew into Little Flower Children and Family Services, and made time to found another African-American Catholic Church, St. Benedict the Moor, in Jamaica, Queens.

The Diocese of Brooklyn has just opened a formal case for the canonization of Father Quinn, receiving widespread support from local Catholics led by the current priest at St. Peter Claver, Rev. Paul Jervis (who was so moved by the impact Quinn had made on his neighborhood when he arrived in 1988 that he wrote a full-length biography of him). I don't usually dabble in matters of religion, and I don't presume to tell the Catholic Church how it should act, but it strikes me that Father Quinn embodies all of the things one would hope for a religious leader. Word has it that it's not that easy to become a saint, but if the Pope is looking for ways to redeem the reputation of his church in wake of scandal piled upon scandal, let's hope he starts by honoring a local hero who faced down bigotry, arson, and poverty to build a better life for our community.

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