Black Catholic church in Rochester notes 175th anniversary - Catholic Courier
The inside of a church.

Immaculate Conception Church in Rochester is celebrating its 175th anniversary. (Courier file photo)

Black Catholic church in Rochester notes 175th anniversary

ROCHESTER — In the 175 years since Immaculate Conception Church was founded, the parish has mirrored its surroundings and adapted to changes in the neighborhood, nation and church.

The original brick church was erected in 1849 through the meager contributions of Irish immigrants who had settled in the Rochester neighborhood now known as Corn Hill.

The Corn Hill website notes that the original Immaculate Conception Church burned down in 1864 and was replaced with the current Romanesque-style building at 445 Frederick Douglass St.

Two schools were built in the late 1800s and staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph, according to Isabella Walters, a lifelong Immaculate Conception parishioner and cochair of the church’s 175th-anniversary committee. In 1926, the schools were consolidated into the current school building, which was a focal point for parish activity, hosting community dinners, dances, movies and other opportunities for fellowship and service until it closed in 1975, she said.

Immaculate Conception changed as changes took place in the U.S. and the Catholic Church

In the late 1960s, changes at Immaculate Conception reflected broader patterns taking place in the country and the Catholic Church.

Walters credited the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) with increasing the involvement of women and laity in parish life. She recalled that Sister of St. Joseph Frances Sweeney and then-pastor Father Paul Brennan established teams of lay-driven ministries by the early 1970s.

During the 1960s, several parishioners took on local leadership in the civil rights struggle, Walters noted. According to parish archives, Immaculate Conception also became a center for peacefully protesting the Vietnam War.

As demographics shifted, Immaculate Conception became a Black Catholic parish

Demographics began to shift in the parish’s neighborhood during the late 1960s, particularly in the area around Clarissa Street. Walters said Black Catholics started attending Immaculate Conception to participate in a faith community that “looks like what you were familiar with, or part of what you came from.”

Church choirs were an important part of the attraction, she said.

“We initially started off as a folk choir, which was popular toward the end of the ’60s and early ’70s. Then the gospel choirs were started up,” Walters said, adding that the gospel groups drew many Black Catholics who wanted to worship in a way that felt natural and comfortable to them.

Immaculate Conception also began to attract Black Catholic families from the suburbs who eventually formed the majority of parishioners, rather than those from the geographical area that had been the historical backbone of the congregation.

Immaculate Conception/St. Bridget’s serves as a focal point for Black Catholic ministries in Rochester

In 1992, Father Michael Upson, who directed the diocesan Office of Black Ministry in the early 2000s, became the first Black pastoral leader at Immaculate Conception. In 2010, the parish merged with St. Bridget’s Church, another predominantly Black Rochester parish, to form the Immaculate Conception/St. Bridget’s community, according to Elizabeth Johnston, coordinator of life issues and cultural ministries for the Diocese of Rochester.

Today, Father Raymond Fleming is pastor of a “thriving and welcoming Roman Catholic community, worshipping with African American traditions,” according to the parish history penned by Walters.

Vincent Stroud, chair of the parish council, said that Immaculate Conception/St. Bridget’s currently has 110 registered families, yet only 20 of them live within the parish boundaries. He noted that “there are about 30 different ZIP codes represented in the parish.”

Immaculate Conception/St. Bridget’s has contributed “to the mosaic of who we are as a church, but are also connected with the roots of African-American history here in Rochester,” Johnston noted.

Parish is planning many events to celebrate milestone anniversary

To celebrate Immaculate Conception’s 175th anniversary, the parish will sponsor multiple events and special Masses from April through December, along with tours of the church and a booklet on the parish’s history, compiled by Walters.

The public is welcome to attend these events, including the opening Mass with Bishop Salvatore R. Matano, which will take place April 7 at 9 a.m. A Gospel Songfest also is scheduled for April 27.

For the celebrations this year, Joanne Gordon, a longtime parishioner and cochair of the anniversary committee, helped to bring in such notable Black priests as Redemptorist Father Maurice Nutt and Father Carl Gales, a musician who will “fit right in with Songfest,” she said.

Gordon said she also hopes the diocesan Filipino Catholic community will join the parish at 9 a.m. on Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, to celebrate the closing Mass with Father Norman Fischer, who is of Black and Filipino heritage.

Tags: Black Catholics, Monroe County East
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