F. Veronica Wilhite, director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry for the Diocese of Owensboro, speaks before the Nov. 4, 2023 Mass in celebration of Black Catholic History Month at St. Stephen Cathedral. ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD | WKC
‘Sharing our gift’
Black Catholics gather for Mass with Bishop Medley
BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
F. Veronica Wilhite apologized for becoming emotional prior to the Nov. 4, 2023 Mass in celebration of Black Catholic History Month at St. Stephen Cathedral.
“This is where my parents met – in that choir loft,” said Wilhite, explaining that years ago, people of color were not allowed to sit in the main part of the cathedral.
Today, Wilhite, the director of the diocese’s Office of Black Catholic Ministry, pointed out the Black Catholics now sitting in the pews throughout the church and said, “Halleluiah.”
She said the purpose of this Mass was “about acknowledging who we are, where we came from, and what gifts we bring to our faith and our Church. And just like each of you – no matter your ethnic identity – we just need and want to share our gift.”
Bishop William F. Medley presided at the Mass, and the concelebrants were Fr. John Thomas, rector of St. Stephen Cathedral; and Fr. Jude Okeoma, pastor of Rosary Chapel and St. Mary Parish in Paducah. Dcn. Ken Bennett, co-coordinator of the diocese’s Office of Worship, assisted.
On display in front of the altar were framed pictures of the six African American men and women whose causes have been opened for canonization: Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, Servant of God Julia Greeley, Servant of God Mother Mary Lange, Venerable Mother Henriette DeLille, Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, and Venerable Pierre Toussaint.
Music used in the liturgy included that of Clarence Joseph Rivers, a Black Catholic priest and famous composer of liturgical music – who paved the way for African American music to be used in the liturgy – and M. Roger Holland, II, another trailblazer in the legacy of African American Catholic music.
Speaking to the faithful attending the Mass, Bishop Medley thanked all for coming, especially those who drove from farther corners of the diocese that morning: “Your presence here today says that your Catholic faith is important, and we’ve got something to celebrate.”
Those attending included several members of the Congolese community at Holy Spirit Parish in Bowling Green. The Congolese choir was originally scheduled to sing at the liturgy, but transportation issues prevented this. Instead, the Congolese parishioners who made it to Owensboro sang a song for those gathered at the luncheon in the cathedral undercroft after Mass.
Stacey Braxton, who belongs to St. Charles Parish in Bardwell, attended the Mass with her husband and volunteered at the luncheon celebration.
Braxton said she met Wilhite when she signed up to attend the National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC) this past July. She was one of six Black Catholic delegates who traveled to Washington, D.C., for the congress.
Braxton – whose youngest child would altar serve and lector at the diocese’s annual YOUTH 2000 retreat for Catholic teens – said it is ironic that this was the first time she and her husband were attending a diocesan event themselves in Owensboro.
She expressed her admiration for Wilhite’s leadership in this ministry.
“The diocese is so large that it’s nice to have this opportunity to fellowship with each other,” said Braxton, adding that she hoped to have more events like these.
Jerrod Hamilton, who resides in Owensboro, said the celebration was “awesome.”
“I liked the fact that it brought not just Black Catholics but all Catholics together; it’s a really good thing when we get together,” he said.
Fellow Owensboro resident, Bernadette Thames, echoed what he said, and asked that more events like these take place.
“It was a wonderful celebration,” she said, “and the singing was just beautiful.”