They’re at opposite ends of the city, but share a connection like no other two churches in the Diocese of Rochester.
That link is so vital, in fact, that Rochester’s Immaculate Conception and St. Bridget’s parishes have taken a unique step in the pastoral-planning process — one designed to help African-Americans thrive in their Catholic faith.
Beginning last July 1, Immaculate Conception and St. Bridget’s — home to most of the African-American Catholic families registered with the diocese — formed a new planning group with a common priest administrator. The pairing marks the only alignment throughout the pastoral-planning process to be based on ethnicity rather than geographic proximity.
“African-American Catholics in the diocese should feel included and have a home. It’s paramount,” said Jackie Campbell, who has been a parishioner at St. Bridget’s since the early 1990s.
“There’s something being offered at these worship sites that’s not being offered anywhere else,” added Gaynelle Wethers, pastoral associate at Immaculate Conception, where she has worshipped for 30 years. Wethers, like Campbell, is African-American.
Attendance at two recent Sunday Masses would quickly verify the unique nature of worship at these churches. At Immaculate Conception, approximately 95 of 100 or so worshipers were black; at St. Bridget’s, more than 80 percent of the 125 worshipers likewise were African-American. According to parish leaders, these statistics represent typical weekly ratios.
Both liturgies were 90 minutes long and marked by: parishioners going out of their way to greet visitors; Gospel choirs; after-Mass coffee hours that attracted most of the congregations; and several images of a dark-skinned Jesus in church artwork.
Mary Dwelley, a 10-year parishioner of St. Bridget’s, said that people of all colors are welcomed at her parish — yet she emphasized that it should be regarded first and foremost as a black parish.
“We’re all church together. But there is a unique African-American spirituality that needs to be expressed,” said Dwelley, who is white.
Identities formed in ’60s
According to statistics provided by the diocesan office of Parish Support Ministries, approximately 450 African-American Catholic families are active at parishes in the City of Rochester. Most are affiliated with St. Bridget’s and Immaculate Conception, each of which have about 150 families overall. African-American, black Caribbean and African immigrant Catholics attend other city churches as well, most notably St. Monica’s Parish in the 19th Ward, which hosted a community Mass and dinner for black Catholics in November 2005.
Father Michael Upson, director of the diocesan Office of Black Ministry, said African-American Catholics have moved into suburban parishes in recent years, but that most suburban blacks still opt to attend city parishes. Father Upson, who served as administrator of Immaculate Conception from 1993-2005, added that only a scant number of African-American Catholics reside in diocesan communities outside Monroe County.
Immaculate Conception is located on Rochester’s southwest side in the Corn Hill section, adjacent to the 19th Ward; St. Bridget’s is on the city’s northeast side. Both are long-standing urban parishes that began to assume African-American identities in the late 1960s. St. Bridget’s has traditionally focused on evangelization in its inner-city neighborhood, and Immaculate Conception is mainly a mix of city residents and African-Americans from the suburbs.
The parishes have presented many parish and diocesan programs, workshops and lectures for black Catholics. Among them are the Martin Luther King scholarship program at St. Bridget’s and the 2004 Black Catholic Convocation, parts of which were hosted by Immaculate Conception.
‘A huge opportunity’
Both Immaculate Conception and St. Bridget’s originally had been grouped with geographic neighbors for the pastoral-planning process, but sought realignment for the sake of their African-American identities.
“It’s not so much that things weren’t working (with the Center City East group, with which St. Bridget’s originally was grouped), as much as they weren’t working for the future of St. Bridget’s,” said Campbell — who has been involved in pastoral planning since 1997. “We began to look for an alignment that was closer to ours, that would match very well with ours.”
In Center City East, Dwelley said, “We felt that a lot of the energy was around Hispanic ministry. As churches close or merge, where would that leave us?”
St. Bridget’s eventually approached Immaculate Conception — which, at the time, was in the 19th Ward planning group.
“It wasn’t a question so much of us moving away. It was a way of best keeping the African-American community together, rather than be splintered groups,” Father Upson said.
“People were willing to give it a try. I think they saw some possibilities,” Wethers added.
The formal affiliation took effect last summer — much to the satisfaction of Campbell, for one.
“If the diocese really wanted to hold evangelization of African-Americans in the city as a priority, then this definitely takes us in that direction,” she said, adding that the merger “is probably the biggest manifestation” of diocesan support.
“It gives us a huge opportunity on both sides of the (Genesee) river, so to speak,” Campbell said.
Liturgical dance and hand-clapping during hymns are among the traditions at Mass that carry on the congregants’ African cultures, observed Father Paul Gitau, first-year parochial administrator of Immaculate Conception and St. Bridget’s.
“This is about what I see in Africa,” said Father Gitau, a native of Kenya. “I feel people are able to express their feelings.”
Father Upson said African-Americans generally prefer such a setting over more sedate liturgies in predominately white parishes.
“This is our spirituality,” he said. “We just feel we want to go somewhere and pray, and don’t want to feel uncomfortable.”
In recent months, St. Bridget’s and Immaculate Conception have combined for such events as an ice-cream social and midnight Christmas Mass. The parishes also have conducted joint meetings of their liturgy committees and choirs, as they begin moving toward a long-range goal of forming one parish with consolidated finances, parish councils, staff and programming.
The transition hasn’t always been easy, however. For starters, due to the ongoing diocesan priest shortage, the parishes dropped from two priests to one in 2005. In the process they have seen the departure of their two longtime pastoral leaders — Father Upson at Immaculate Conception and Father Tony Mugavero, pastor of St. Bridget’s from 1992-2005.
“I began from scratch,” said Father Gitau, acknowledging that “it is hard for the two communities because they had their pastors for so many years. It’s hard to let go of traditions.”
Whereas Father Upson is the only African-American diocesan priest, diocesan parishes have been served by several extern priests from Africa, including Father Gitau, 43, who has served here since 2003. A priest of the Diocese of Nairobi, he received an indefinite appointment as parochial administrator of Immaculate Conception and St. Bridget’s from Bishop Matthew H. Clark while he pursues a master’s degree at St. John Fisher College.
Father Gitau is among four members of the Immaculate Conception/St. Bridget’s merger-committee leadership team. The others are Wethers, Dwelley and Bernard Grizard, director of Parish Support Ministries, of which the black ministry office is a part.
Work is not done
The challenge of working together exists not only between these two parishes, but also between African-American Catholics and other members of the diocese.
In a document issued by Parish Support Ministries in 2003, the diocesan office urged all Catholics to examine their cultural assumptions, asking whether they have the tools to work with other cultures or are willing to learn; can face the subject of racism with honesty; have a vision of the increasing cultural diversity in Rochester; and are capable of aiding in the healing process for those who have been ostracized by the church.
Grizard said such self-examination requires sincerity and honesty as people of all ethnic backgrounds examine “their own assumptions and ways, and enter into the process of conversion.”
Meanwhile, Wethers is concerned that complacency has settled into church and society, threatening strides made for African-Americans both locally and nationally during the civil-rights movement.
“I think we’ve gotten comfortable. Nobody rocks the boat, so to speak,” said Wethers, who serves as director of multicultural affairs at Nazareth College. “That energy is gone. There was an excitement there that was not passed on.”
These observations from Grizard and Wethers suggest much work remains to be done in implementing “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” the U.S. bishops’ 1979 pastoral letter on racism.
“All too often the Church in our country has been for many a ‘white Church,’ a racist institution,” the bishops wrote. “Each of us as Catholics must acknowledge a share in the mistakes and sins of the past. … (W)e have preached the Gospel while closing our eyes to the racism it condemns.”
The pastoral letter adds that “all too often in the very places where blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asians are numerous, the Church’s officials and representatives, both clerical and lay, are predominantly white. Efforts to achieve racial balance in government, the media, the armed services, and other crucial areas of secular life should not only be supported but surpassed in the institutions and the programs of the Catholic Church.”
Ultimately, Father Upson said, Catholics of all ethnic backgrounds need to feel comfortable regardless of the setting.
“When you enter a church, how that community greets you will affect the decision you make,” Father Upson said. “We’re all uncomfortable for different reasons … racism in this country has not just affected the African-American community. Do you go about ministering in the kind of way that’s inclusive?”
“How have we changed to make the climate warm in all the churches for everyone?” Wethers asked.
Parishes certainly could take a cue on hospitality to all from Immaculate Conception and St. Bridget’s, where anyone who enters is bound to sense the warmth immediately.
“It doesn’t necessarily matter about the ethnicity, it’s the spirituality,” Campbell said. “It’s still a Catholic church, and the Eucharist is why we come. It’s a different style and feel, but everyone is welcome.”