Sainthood cause opened for founder of first black parish

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – The process to declare a former Brooklyn pastor a saint has begun.

The name of Monsignor Bernard Quinn, founding pastor of St. Peter Claver Parish in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the first parish established for black Catholics in the Brooklyn Diocese, will be sent to Rome to be considered for canonization.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn officially approved the effort Jan. 13.

The same day Auxiliary Bishop Guy A. Sansaricq was the main celebrant of a Mass at St. Peter Claver Church. The congregation of 500 people included members of the Quinn family.

Joining him at the altar were retired Brooklyn Auxiliary Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan, and Father Paul Jervis, the current pastor and main promoter of Monsignor Quinn’s cause.

Another concelebrant was Monsignor William Rodgers, 85, a member of St. Peter Claver Parish who became the first black accepted into Brooklyn’s diocesan seminary and the first to be ordained for the Brooklyn Diocese.

“It is time to begin the final review,” said Father Jervis, who wrote “Quintessential Priest,” the story of the life of Monsignor Quinn. “He is in a class all by himself. Join me in promoting his cause with interest and zeal. Today’s Mass is a powerful springboard to launch the cause.”

Father Jervis explained that the request for sainthood along with the details of Monsignor Quinn’s life will be sent to the Vatican’s Congregation for Saints’ Causes, which will study the merits of the case.

But, Father Jervis warned, there has to be an enduring interest. “Rome wants to see that you are interested,” he said as he urged people to participate in promoting the good works of Monsignor Quinn with prayer and participation.

In the front row at St. Peter Claver Church were members of Monsignor Quinn’s family, including his grandniece, Katherine, and her family, who flew in from St. Louis. Her grandfather, Charles Quinn, was Monsignor Quinn’s brother.

On display in the church were items that belonged to Monsignor Quinn and have been preserved by members of the family, as well as newspaper articles about his life.

A clipping from The New York Times described the scene of the funeral held at St. Peter for Monsignor Quinn in 1940 – 8,000 people lined the streets around the church.

Also shown were stoles the priest had used as a chaplain in Europe during World War I, as well as his surplice from the 1920s, and a leather paten, or holder, used during his military service.

As a young priest, Father Quinn was drawn to serve black Catholics. When he approached Bishop Charles McDonnell about starting a parish for blacks in Bedford-Stuyvesant, he was told that recruiting chaplains to serve U.S. soldiers in World War I was a priority for the diocese.

He volunteered and served in France, where he nurtured a devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux, known as the Little Flower of Jesus. He visited the house where she was raised and became the first priest to celebrate Mass there at a time when it was a little-known shrine.

He later began a novena in honor of the Little Flower at St. Peter Claver. It brought together hundreds of white and black Catholics, in what Father Jervis called “the only place in the United States where whites joined their black brethren week after week in prayer, even though it was a time when blacks and whites were separate.”

Father Quinn returned from the war in ill health after being gassed with poison. He suffered poor health for the rest of his life.

Upon his arrival back in the diocese, he received permission from Bishop McDonnell to start a new parish for black people in Brooklyn. He worked with the Colored Catholic Club and established the parish of St. Peter Claver in what had been a Protestant church that later was turned into a warehouse depot.

In his homily, Father Jervis referred to a pastoral letter written by Monsignor Quinn to the people of St. Peter Claver. In it, he said, “I love you, I am proud of every one of you, and I would willingly shed to the last drop my life’s blood for the least among you.”

In later years, Monsignor Quinn referred to himself as “an adopted son of the Negro race.”

“In his quest to be an adopted son of the Negro race, he did not forsake his own Irish background,” Father Jervis said. “But he was able to get under the skin of the black race. He could feel the pain of injustice and indignity that was systemic in society. Bernard Quinn identified his life with blacks without being the skin color of black.”

Monsignor Quinn established in the diocese a second parish for blacks, St. Benedict the Moor in Jamaica, and established Little Flower Orphanage for black children on Long Island, despite having the building burned down twice by the Ku Klux Klan.

Father Jervis asked those devoted to Monsignor Quinn’s cause to support it, both spiritually and financially. He requested that a prayer he has composed for the process be recited daily.

“Most of all, I ask you to live out the spirit of Father Quinn’s love and to wipe out every trace of racism in your heart,” said Father Jervis. “Always be willing to open your hearts to the people of the world.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.