On New Year’s Eve, 1862, blacks waited anxiously, watching the clock and hoping the Emancipation Proclamation would, in fact, take effect at midnight.
Nearly 150 years later, black Catholics in the archdiocese maintain the tradition by observing “Watch Night,” when they await midnight with prayer, praise and song.
This year, Watch Night takes on added significance with the election of Barack Obama as America’s first black president.
“I think people feel so much that it’s such a historic moment and that they are personally witnessing it in their lives,” said Monsignor Damien Nalepa, pastor of St. Gregory the Great in West Baltimore. “You hear people saying that so much, that they’re so proud to be living in this moment for this. It generates hope for 2009.”
Monsignor Nalepa said the church will incorporate the election of President-elect Obama in the church’s Dec. 31 service.
St. Cecilia in West Baltimore also plans a Watch Night service, said the pastor, Vincentian Father Sylvester Peterka.
He said parishioners would welcome 2009 on their knees, asking God to be with them.
“We know that our freedom as children of the Lord comes from the Lord,” Father Peterka said, “and we always need to celebrate what God has given us.”
He noted that blacks prayed on Dec. 31, 1862, for President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to free slaves in certain states on New Year’s Day.
“There is great hope in this new year,” said Therese Wilson Favors, director of the archdiocese Office of African American Ministries. “As we celebrate coming into the new year, we continue to plant seeds among our people. We continue to follow Christ and remember that he said, ‘I come to give you life and give it to the full.’”
Many blacks, she said, will eat traditional Watch Night foods like collard greens, which symbolize prosperity for the coming year; and black-eyed peas, which symbolize looking ahead with hope.
But racism persists – in health care and the criminal justice system, for example, Ms. Favors said. And leaders must work to eliminate it, she said.
This year, the economic crisis also weighs heavily on the minds of many.
“I’m quite sure that will be in our prayers,” said Gwendolyn A. Lindsay, a parishioner at New All Saints, Liberty Heights.
The new year also will mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Knights of St. Peter Claver, a national, African-American lay Catholic organization. Four priests from the Baltimore-based Josephite religious order and three laymen started the group in Alabama.