The rousing sounds of Gospel music and sweet spirituals filled Saint Mary’s College chapel on Tuesday, Jan. 15, as hundreds of worshippers enjoyed a cultural celebration in honor of the 150th anniversary of both the Emancipation Proclamation and the college, as well as the birthday of the Martin Luther King, Jr.

The moving concert by Oakland’s renowned St. Colum Michele Jordan, of the St. Columba Catholic Church Gospel Choir, sings the spiritual "Precious Love."ba Catholic Church Gospel Choir, under the direction of Rawn Harbor, one of the nation’s preeminent African American Catholic composers, was part of a January Term program called “Soulful and Sacred: Celebrating the Black Catholic Experience.”

Listen to the choir.

The program began with a speech by Rev. Edward Branch, who traced the history of black involvement in the Catholic church, from the first Africans to take up Christianity in Ethiopia to the modern day.

Father Branch, the Catholic chaplain for the Lyke House at the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of historically black colleges, noted that there are more than 4 million African American Catholics and 11 African American bishops. They share a world view and a response to God in light of their experiences, he said. 

Father Edward Branch He also differentiated between the Black Catholic experience and the Protestant one. “Beginning with the slavery experience, Black Protestant tradition interprets the scriptures through the filter of Black suffering and the action of God in behalf of justice and ongoing emancipation – man cries and God hears,” he said. On the other hand, “Black Catholic tradition interprets suffering and discerns the call and the action of God in behalf of justice through the filter of the scriptures and its tradition – God speaks and man hears.”

He advised black Catholics today to “know the past and learn from it” in order to preserve and advance the unique black Catholic experience.

After Father Branch’s speech, the college’s Black Alumni Chapter hosted a reception for SMC’s African-American alumni and honored Mary Ellen Pleasant, a well-known abolitionist and early benefactor of Saint Mary’s, with the inaugural Trailblazer Award.

Pleasant, a former slave and groundbreaking civil rights activist who is known as “The Mother of Human Rights in California,” donated the equivalent of $8,000 in today’s dollars to build Saint Mary’s campus, which was then located in Oakland, and rebuild it after it was devastated by fire.

J.P. Musgrove, president-elect of the College’s Alumni Board, said the award, which was presented by Evan Richardson ’14, a 20-year-old politics major and secretary of the Black Student Union, will serve as an inspiration “so future generations can stand on higher ground.”

By Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications

Photos by James Knox

View a photo gallery of the event.

Read the Contra Costa Times story on Father Branch's speech.

Read Father Branch's complete speech.

Read JP Musgrove's inaugurating the SMC Black Alumni Chapter Trailblazer Award.

Read Evan Richardson's speech honoring Mary Ellen Pleasant with the first Black Alumni Chapter Trailblazer Award.

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