Worshippers gather at St. Brigid’s parish in Westbury on the first Friday night of each month for a Mass unlike any other in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
The event, called “Jesus Night,” is imbued with the music and spirit of black gospel. It is an effort to attract greater numbers of blacks to the Catholic Church, as well as others who enjoy gospel music and preaching, said Darcel Whitten-Wilamowski, coordinator of the diocese’s Office of Multicultural Diversity.
The Mass is “a more alive kind of service,” said the Rev. Tony Stanganelli, pastor of St. Brigid’s, who officiates at the Mass. It is “honoring the great gift the African-American culture has brought to all religions.”
The Jesus Night Mass is one event the diocese is highlighting during Black History Month as it launches efforts to unify black Catholics on Long Island and bring into the church those who are not involved.
This weekend, the Rockville Centre diocese and the Diocese of Brooklyn are joining forces to hold three events: two spiritual revival services and a Mass of Thanksgiving.
The spiritual revival services are Friday night at St. Brigid’s and Saturday night at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Jamaica, Queens. The Rev. Freddy Washington, pastor of St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Harlem, will lead the events.
On Sunday, the dioceses will host a Black History Month Mass of Thanksgiving at Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston, Queens. Bishop Ferand J. Cheri III, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, will officiate at the service.
Singing at the Mass will be the Sister Thea Bowman Diocesan Gospel Choir, a group that aims to bring “the Gospel message through African cultural avenues to all communities,” according to the Diocese of Rockville Centre’s website.
Whitten-Wilamowski, who founded the choir three decades ago, said incorporating black Catholics more deeply into the church is not always easy.
These Catholics are disparate and often geographically dispersed: those of African-American descent; Haitians, who are a growing presence on Long Island; those from other Caribbean countries; and newer groups such as Nigerians, who Whitten-Wilamowski said are harder to locate and bring into the organized church.
Whitten-Wilamowski’s office oversees both the Ministry to Catholics of African Ancestry and the Haitian-American Apostolate Ministry.
There are no precise figures on the number of black Catholics on Long Island. Whitten-Wilamowski said the number is in the thousands. Overall, they represent a minority of Long Island’s estimated 1.5 million baptized Catholics.
Nationally, blacks make up about 4 percent of the Catholic population, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Despite their small numbers, black Catholics can bring vibrancy and diversity into the church that can help revitalize parishes, Whitten-Wilamowski said.
Stanganelli said he feels that every first Friday at St. Brigid’s, as the gospel-style Mass draws different races and ethnicities: blacks, whites and Latinos.
“It’s gaining momentum,” Stanganelli said, partly because of the presence of the Sister Thea Bowman Choir. The aim is to “present the gospel in a way that is not boring.”