Black History Month: Unsung heroes among us

Since 1976, February has been declared Black History Month in the U.S. The Clarion Herald is honoring that tradition by highlighting a few unsung heroes in the African-American community who have made a difference in ministries not only in their Catholic church parishes in the Archdiocese of New Orleans but also in our community.

They gave their thoughts to Clarion Herald associate editor Christine Bordelon.

 

Bertell Bailey

As a teen, Bailey met racism head on when he was denied the opportunity to sing in his parish church choir. He petitioned the then-archbishop of New Orleans, who granted him permission to sing. Bertell grew up in Kenner, attending Kenner Elementary and then Xavier Preparatory School on Magazine Street when it was coed. He graduated from Xavier University of Louisiana in music education and was a long-time educator. He was raised Baptist, but decided to become Catholic at age 18 while attending Xavier Prep.

“I was never too pleased with the Baptists, so it was easy to transfer,” he said. “The (Xavier) kids seemed to be so sincere and celebrated Mass once a week.”

He said he grew up singing baritone, first in Baptist churches – following in the footsteps of his mother and three sisters – then in the Catholic church. He moved out of Kenner but returned in 1990 and rejoined the choir at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Kenner. Bailey has been a cantor since 1992 at the parish’s 5 p.m. Sunday Mass.

“I just love to sing,” Bailey said. “It’s a way of fulfilling my obligation at church.”

He said the Catholic faith stayed with him. “I’m very devoted,” he said. “I have been going to adoration chapel every Friday for past 15 to 16 years. I find the Catholic faith more satisfying.”

In addition to cantoring, Bailey has helped his parish food pantry and is a member of the New Orleans Black Chorale. “We sing a black history program and do all music from black composers, keeping spirituals alive,” he said. He has also sung with Xavier University’s choir.

Eric Hornsby

Hornsby is a pianist, composer and bass singer at St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in New Orleans. He attended St. Gabriel School, Brother Martin High School and Loyola University New Orleans, where he earned a degree in music theory and composition. 

Hornsby is a composer by trade, writing mostly popular music, but his favorite music is jazz. He can be found playing the piano and singing at St. Gabriel’s 4 p.m. Vigil Mass and at the 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. (Gospel) Masses on Sunday.

“I help people express themselves in song in their praise to God,” Hornsby said.

Hornsby is noted for singing at funeral Masses, working with families to incorporate special songs.

“I’ve been raised and educated Catholic all my life,” Hornsby said. “It has an effect on my attitude toward everything I do. … I try not to judge other people; I try not to offend other people.”

He currently works at Delgado Community College’s English as Second Language computer lab. He also plays music with Spectrum 6 at nightclubs, including the Prime Example jazz club on Broad Street on Tuesdays at 8 p.m.

Connie and Dwight Fitch

The Fitches are active members of St. Raymond-St. Leo the Great Parish in Gentilly. Connie’s family history goes back several generations in St. Raymond Parish, where she was involved in music ministry for 36 years. She is alumnae director at St. Mary’s Academy.

Dwight grew up in Epiphany Parish and is a minister of music at Xavier University of Louisiana. They have collaborated in music ministry for the past decade when St. Raymond-St. Leo merged after Hurricane Katrina. Dwight plays the piano; Connie directs the choir and sings. They have also sung together in the Archdiocesan Gospel Choir.

“We have a Gospel choir,” Connie said. “Many of the members at St. Raymond stayed with the choir. It’s been like a family all these years. I think music confirms and affirms the Word of the Gospel that day. That’s how we prepare our liturgy. We pull a theme from the readings and select the music to enhance and reinforce the liturgy.”

Connie said the choir sings a variety of music, including spirituals, contemporary and traditional Gospel music to reach a diverse parish. The choir also holds conferences and does days of renewal for members to nourish their ministry.

“We don’t ever want to lose sight we are ministers of God’s word through music,” she said. “We have to live that word, learn to live together and forgive one another.”

Through music, parishioners “are able to let their guard down, forget about what’s going on at home and focus on God and his unconditional love. … It breaks that heart open and fills it with that word you need to thrive and survive in the world.”

Connie is a cradle Catholic whose grandmother took her to Mass daily as a child and gave her a strong foundation. “Your church is like your momma and daddy,” she said. “You grow up with it, and when I began to have children, my children came with me. Church was part of our family life.”

She credits a priest at St. Raymond for recognizing and nurturing her musical talent. In addition to music, Connie is on the Old-Fashioned Tent Revival committee. They believe strongly in miracles, noting that Dwight has survived Stage 4 lung cancer without chemotherapy.

“God, prayers and a holistic health habit” healed him, she said. “We had people praying a prayer about not being afraid at noon every day since 2008. Baby, we’re still praying.”

She said, Josephite Father Anthony Bozeman, pastor of St. Raymond-St. Leo, said we “can’t forget what God has done and is always pointing out how Dwight was healed.”

Sylvia Thomas

Thomas is a current parishioner at St. Katharine Drexel Church (the former Holy Ghost Parish). The eldest of three children, she says her Catholic faith was reinforced by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament when she attended Holy Ghost School, Xavier Prep and Xavier University of Louisiana, where she earned a degree in music and liberal arts and a master’s in curriculum instruction for early childhood.

She taught at Holy Ghost School for 27 years and, for the past five years, has taught fifth- and sixth-grade religion at St. Mary’s Academy. Since Hurricane Katrina, she has been choir director at St. Katharine Drexel Parish.

“Faith is a foundation for my living,” she said. “I walk by faith and not by sight.”

As choir director, she thinks she uplifts the spirits of parishioners.

“To let them know God is with us throughout the week, to give us strength and motivation to carry on,” she said. “Music sends a message – composers give us those words and strength to live every day to keep pushing forward to the next day.”

Some of her favorite songs include “He’s an On-time God,” “Lord I’m Available to You,” “Lord I Want to Be a Christian” and the spiritual “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.”

“It’s important to express my faith through music because God has given me an opportunity to express his goodness and love toward them,” she said. “I share my joy and struggles with others through my music.”

Irene and Stephen Young Sr.

The Youngs serve St. David Church in both the couples ministry and music ministry. Their love story began when both were studying at Xavier University. They have sung together with the New Orleans Chorale. Irene teaches elementary, middle and senior high chorus at St. Mary’s Academy. Stephen teaches theology and world history at St. Augustine High School, where he graduated.

The couple has been active in the parish as long as they have been married – 39 years, said Josephite Father Oswald P. Pierre-Jules Jr., St. David’s pastor. Irene is music minister for all parish choirs, including the Gospel choir, while Stephen, who grew up in St. David Parish, sings and is also chair of the pastoral council, a member of the evangelization committee, a lector and extraordinary minister of holy Communion.

“They work together,” Father Oswald said. “They are a good example of a wife and husband in our parish. They are involved in married couples’ ministry. Every fourth Sunday is youth Sunday, Irene is so good with the youth. She also works with the youth choir and men’s chorus called Ambassadors for Christ.

“We are involved with the church because of our dedication to the Lord and what the Catholic Church means to us – growth, love, community and service,” Irene said. “We brought up all our children (five of them) in the Catholic faith. God makes everything possible and continues to bless me, my family and my ministry.”

 

Jalonda Robertson

Robertson started in music ministry by singing at Our Lady of Lourdes on Napoleon Avenue. She was raised Catholic by parents and grandparents who were faith-filled people, attended Corpus Christi Elementary, Xavier Prep and Xavier University, earning a degree in music education.

Robertson is minister of music at St. Gabriel Parish, playing mostly organ and piano. She chairs the liturgy committee and is a member of the parish’s décor committee and works with youth to pass on her knowledge to the next generation. She teaches music at Warren Easton Charter High School. She recalls starting with St. David choir in early 1980s.

“We do all kinds of music, but mainly Gospel,” she said. “Many of the people in the choir have been in it since high school.”

She works to provide lively music so Mass attendees can participate by clapping and catch on easily. She said songs that are not lively “are heart-warming and bring out the feelings of the liturgy of that day – your longing for God and God always being there to help you. The songs may sound good, but they also help you cope with things going on in your life and people you know and bring you closer to God.”

Robertson said she realizes how important having her Catholic faith is when witnessing others who have nothing to turn to in turbulent times. The Bible and fellow parishioners have helped her in times of trouble.

“You don’t have to be alone,” she said. “I can tell when people have no faith, because they are lost and don’t know what to do. … The church is a family, the choir is a family. We all assist one another.”

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