DC choir’s message to Baltimore County parish: ‘We’re all family’

PERRY HALL – The roof nearly blew off St. Joseph Church in Fullerton the afternoon of July 28, when the Washington, D.C.-based Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Adult Choir led worshipers in spirited song at 12:30 p.m. Mass.

The Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Adult Choir sings at St. Joseph in Fullerton. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

“We at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian are blessed to be here to help worship with you this afternoon,” said L’Tanya Holley, who invited everyone “to lift your hearts, lift your minds, lift your spirits.”

And they did.

The first hymn, “Everyday is a Day of Thanksgiving,” ended with rousing energy followed by profound silence. After that, every hymn offered by the Gospel-infused choir from near Capitol Hill prompted a little swaying, some clapping, and an explosion of applause as each came to a rousing end. When Kathy Richburg concluded her post-Communion meditation, a reflective “My Help,” the faithful leapt to their feet in appreciation.

“It is a day of thanksgiving,” said Father Jesse Bolger, St. Joseph’s pastor, in his welcoming remarks to the crowded church. “It’s true every day the Lord is blessing us. But not every day we have this choir with us.”

Later, in his homily, Father Bolger said, “You’re probably wondering how this came about.”

Last fall, Father Bolger took in a concert by the Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Adult Choir and found himself listening as a “pastor trying to be a bridge-builder in this beautiful, diverse parish we have.”

L’Tanya Holley leads the congregation during Mass at St. Joseph, Fullerton. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

Earlier, Father Bolger had noted that in less than a year, Archbishop William E. Lori wrote two pastoral letters on racism. The first, in February 2018, was on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death. In it, the archbishop spoke about “changing the negative narrative” about Baltimore, which happened to be a national topic July 28 with a back-and-forth between President Donald Trump and U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings (D-7).

Father Bolger took Archbishop Lori’s directives to heart and invited the D.C. choir to St. Joseph. He told his congregation the partnership will continue Oct. 27, when St. Joseph’s youth choir sings in the annual Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian concert. It will include Father Bolger on electric guitar, and the voices of the Maximiano sisters, Antonette and Christiana.

“It was different from what we usually hear,” Christiana, a Mercy High School student, of the D.C. choir.

“I liked it too,” added Antonette, an eighth-grader at St. Joseph School.

Brian Bolger, father of St. Joseph pastor Father Jesse Bolger, shares his gratitude with Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Adult Choir director George Stewart,. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

“You have a gold mine,” George Stewart, director of the D.C. choir, said after Communion. He urged St. Joseph parishioners to support their parish school, which won a National Blue Ribbon of Excellence in 2016, and arts education.

Music, he said, exposes children to positive messages that will help them when “life happens.”

“It’s something that sticks with you,” Stewart said.

He called Ernie Barretta, the director of liturgical music at St. Joseph who joined the choir’s band on the keyboards, another “gold mine.”

“One of my biggest missions is bringing people together,” Stewart said. “I believe music is a universal language.”

“What Father Jesse has done has united the whole community,” Willie Nichols said after Mass.” It was uplifting.”

“I don’t think I’ve seen energy like this in the 39-40 years we’ve been here,” said his wife, Gladis. “It’s sure a pleasure to have Father Jesse come and share that connection with the different ethnicities.”

Members of the hospitality committee left Mass after communion to put the finishing touches on a reception that had parishioners lingering until after 3 p.m. Lita Raver and Jodi Schatz smiled at the entrance of the parish center, welcoming parishioners and choir members to a reception of sandwiches and cake.

Father Jesse Bolger concelebrates Mass with New Orleans auxiliary Bishop Fernand Cheri. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

“They were amazing,” Schatz said of the choir.

Concelebrants included Father Francis Ouma, associate pastor of St. Joseph; Father Diego Rivera, who is assisting at St. Joseph Parish this summer; and a surprise visitor, New Orleans auxiliary Bishop Fernand J. Cheri. When the bishop and a group of musicians from New Orleans arrived at the Capitol Hill church for Mass, Stewart invited them to get on the bus heading to northeast Baltimore County.

“I’m glad we did,” said Bishop Cheri, who clapped and added his voice to every song. “It was a beautiful experience.”

“When we come into a church we don’t come in as strangers. We share the same faith,” said Steve Jefferson, a member of the Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Adult Choir.

Fellow singer Alice White nodded and said, “We’re all family.”

Bishop Cheri sits on the board of directors of the Lyke Foundation, which seeks to enrich liturgies and ministries and promote evangelization at parishes serving Black Catholics. Its executive director is Richard Cheri, his brother, who was in attendance and said he was touched by the service.

“This connectiveness is heartwarming,” he said. “It’s real Catholic.

Mary K. Tilghman

Mary K. Tilghman

Mary Tilghman is a freelance contributor to the Catholic Review who previously served as managing editor, news editor and staff writer for the Review.

A parishioner of St. Ignatius in Baltimore, she and her husband have three adult children. Her first novel, “Divided Loyalties” (Black Rose Writing), a historical novel set in the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam, was published in 2017.