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At centennial Mass for Holy Redeemer Parish in D.C., cardinal says Advent, like church’s milestone, is a special time of grace

Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory sprinkles holy water during the blessing of the new Welcome Annex at Holy Redeemer Church in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 27. That morning, the cardinal also celebrated a Mass marking the parish’s 100th anniversary. The annex includes an elevator and ramp for accessibility into the church. At left next to the cardinal is Father David Bava, Holy Redeemer’s pastor, and at right is Deacon Willis Daniels who serves at the parish. (CS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Celebrating a Nov. 27 Mass on the first Sunday of Advent at Holy Redeemer Church in Washington, D.C., marking the parish’s 100th anniversary, Cardinal Gregory said that milestone, like the Advent season, should be a special time of grace, a time to pray and listen to God while making one’s own journey of faith.

“This time of grace is a moment dedicated to listening with a new heart to what might seem like old truths. You are asking God to refashion not just some hearts, not just a few hearts, but every heart within the parish – even your own heart!” the cardinal said.

Reflecting on the season of Advent, Cardinal Gregory said, “Advent asks us to do the most difficult thing that any human being can ever undertake. Advent is all about waiting. Very few of us are any good at waiting. Our entire American society, in fact, has been conditioned not to wait.”

He pointed out how people don’t like waiting in lines and hate long TV commercial breaks.

“Is it surprising then, that Advent, the Church’s season of waiting, is perhaps the least well understood season in the Church calendar?” the cardinal asked. “Most Catholics still think that Advent is ‘count-down for Christmas.’ Many of us look at this season as just the liturgical anticipation of Christmas.”

Advent, he added, “is a time all on its own. It should be the time of watchful dialogue with God. Advent is that period of time when people of faith must admit that, in all honesty, we are not in control of our own times.”

Men light the Advent candle for the first Sunday of Advent at Holy Redeemer Church in Washington, D.C., before Cardinal Wilton Gregory celebrated a Mass marking the parish’s 100th anniversary. (CS photos/Tyler Orsburn)

Cardinal Gregory said Advent is a time when “we stand waiting for God to fulfill His promises. We are confident during this time, because faith tells us that God is always trustworthy, and God is always on time, but according to God’s own designs!”

Tying in the season of Advent with Holy Redeemer’s anniversary, he said the parish was embarking on a centennial time of grace, honoring its long heritage of faith. 

The parish was established in 1922, and its founders included determined members of the local Black Catholic community who had experienced discrimination at nearby St. Aloysius Church. In the decades that followed, Holy Redeemer Parish drew thousands of members and was known for its evangelization efforts and educational outreach. Since then, generations of Black Catholic families have remained loyal to that parish, which now serves a diverse community, including members of St. Aloysius after that ceased being a parish in 2012.

Cardinal Wilton Gregory gives his homily during a Nov. 27 Mass at Holy Redeemer Church in Washington marking the parish’s 100th anniversary. (CS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

The cardinal in his homily said Holy Redeemer’s 100th anniversary offers a time of grace that “begins with a desire to allow God to have his own way with this parish. You are opening yourselves up to God’s own wisdom, God’s own design, and God’s own future for Holy Redeemer. You are asking for the grace of renewal.”

That, he said, means being conscious of Catholics in that community who may have grown distant from the Church, and also welcoming those who might not have a church home.

Cantor Anjanette Tinney-Young leads the singing at the Nov. 27 100th anniversary Mass at Holy Redeemer Church in Washington. Her mother, Denyce Daniels, serves as the director of the parish’s “The Least of These” Gospel Choir. (CS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Concluding his homily, Cardinal Gregory said, “Advent begins in a new way for Holy Redeemer this year, may it usher in a new birth of hope, compassion, joy (and) fulfillment whenever God finds you ready to receive those gifts that God has in store for you and for all those you love, as well as those you might be asked to learn to love anew or even for the first time. That itself would indeed be a year of grace.”

Accompanied by Father David Bava, Holy Redeemer’s longtime pastor, the cardinal after Communion blessed the parish’s new Welcome Annex, with its elevator and ramp making the church fully accessible for its elderly population and for people with disabilities.

Sarah Ramson plays the harp in the new Welcome Annex at Holy Redeemer Church in Washington, D.C., before Cardinal Wilton Gregory celebrated a Mass on Nov. 27, 2022 marking the parish’s centennial. After Communion, the cardinal blessed the annex. (CS photos/Tyler Orsburn)

On the day before Holy Redeemer’s centennial Mass of Thanksgiving, the parish held a gala banquet at nearby Gonzaga College High School.

Holy Redeemer’s anniversary Mass began with a dramatic opening procession that included the Knights and Ladies of St. John, members of the Sodality and Holy Name Society at the parish, and church elders. 

Leading the procession while chanting and beating a drum was Francis Gray, the tribal chairman of the Piscataway Conoy Tribe, wearing a headdress that included hawk and wild turkey feathers. Before the Mass, Gray said he would be “giving thanks to all those who walked in front of us,” and representing the ties that the Native American tribes in this area have had with the Catholic Church since Jesuit Father Andrew White baptized the Tayac, the head chieftain of the Piscataway Indians, in 1640.

Francis Gray, the tribal chairman of the Piscataway Conoy Tribe, participates in the opening procession before the 100th anniversary Mass for Holy Redeemer Church in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 27. (CS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

The opening procession also included Nettie Smith, a member of the parish’s choir, and Reginald Tobias, a longtime parishioner and member of the Knights of St. John, acting as “sweepers,” using small brooms to sweep the main aisle, harkening back to an old tradition in some churches for special occasions.

Beforehand, Nettie Smith said the parish’s anniversary “is something really to celebrate. I’ve never been in a 100-anything before. I turned 86 last week, and I’m looking forward to everything.”

Cardinal Gregory opened the Mass saying it was a joy for him to join Holy Redeemer Parish “as you celebrate your 100th birthday.” He welcomed “one of our Josephite patriarchs” in attendance, Father William Norvel, representing the religious order that staffed the parish for its first 75 years. In 2011, Father Norvel became the first Black superior general of the Josephites. Now he lives in retirement at the Sacred Heart Home in Hyattsville.

At the Mass, special recognition was also given to representatives of the three orders of women religious that staffed Holy Redeemer School over the years – the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the Religious of the Sacred Heart and the Sisters of the Holy Family. The sisters in attendance were asked to stand, and they were greeted with applause.

The prayers of the faithful at the Mass were offered in English, Spanish, French, Swahili, Hindustani, German, Arabic and the Igbo language of Nigeria.

Deacon Willis Daniels of Holy Redeemer Parish in Washington holds aloft the Book of the Gospels before reading the Gospel at the parish’s 100th anniversary Mass on Nov. 27. (CS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

A parish history book prepared for the 100th anniversary reflects the theme “Upon These Rocks We Build Our Church” and pays tribute to the founding members and their legacy of faith continued by parishioners who followed them. 

In 1917, more than 200 African-American Catholic families in Northwest Washington successfully petitioned Baltimore Cardinal James Gibbons to establish a church of their own, after experiencing discrimination at nearby St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church, where they had to sit in the balcony and wait to receive Communion after white Catholics. In 1919, they began meeting in the home of Peter Mercer Quander Sr., a veteran of the Navy in World War I, to pray and plan for the construction of their church with their first pastor, Josephite Father Francis Tobin. 

The founding of the parish unfolded during the infamous “Red Summer” of 1919 that was marked by lynchings, anti-Black riots and church burnings across the country meant to terrorize and drive out African-Americans from communities.

The first major contribution for the construction of Holy Redeemer Church was an $8,000 donation in 1921 from Mother Katharine Drexel, the Philadelphia heiress and future saint who founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to serve Black and Native Americans. Sisters from her order staffed Holy Redeemer School from when it opened in 1954 until 1981. Later Religious of the Sacred Heart and Sisters of the Holy Family from New Orleans, along with lay people, staffed the parish school, which closed in 2010.

Holy Redeemer Church was dedicated in 1922, and by the church’s 25th anniversary in 1947, it had become a major source of evangelization for Black Catholics in the nation’s capital, with the parish having nearly 5,000 members in the years after World War II.

The parish’s history includes a photo of the first sacramental entry for the new Church of the Holy Redeemer from March 1921. The handwritten entry shows that Charlotte Andrews, then 80 years old, was seeking the sacrament of Confirmation, and in the place in the registry where parents were listed, it simply said, “Born in slavery.”

Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory, at center, celebrates the 100th anniversary Mass for Holy Redeemer Parish in Washington on Nov. 27, 2022. From left to right are Father Michael Schaab, a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois; Deacon John Robinson Jr.; Father Charles Cortinovis, the cardinal’s priest secretary; Cardinal Gregory; Deacon Willis Daniels; and Father David Bava, Holy Redeemer’s pastor. (CS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Father Bava, who has served as the pastor of Holy Redeemer for the past 28 years since January 1995, praised the legacy of faith of the founding parishioners that has shaped the generations that have worshiped at the church over the past 100 years.

They had “stamina in charity and perseverance in the faith. They were united in making the Black Catholic witness strong and evident in this part of D.C.,” he said.

Parishioners and guests attending a brunch in the church hall after the Mass reflected on the parish’s legacy.

Yvette Alexander – a former member of the D.C. City Council representing Ward 7  who now works as a consultant in government affairs, health care and economic development – noted how Holy Redeemer Church was founded by Black Catholics as a place where they could worship together as a community.

She noted that she was baptized and received her First Holy Communion there, and graduated from Holy Redeemer School, which she said gave her a “solid educational foundation.”

In an earlier interview, Alexander said Holy Redeemer has had “a major impact… on how I live my life, putting God first, and then family, and then service.”

After the anniversary Mass for Holy Redeemer Parish, she said, “We are still strong after 1oo years.”

Donna Ellsworth, a 75-year-old retired nurse, shared a similar story of growing up at Holy Redeemer Parish, receiving her sacraments there and graduating from the school. “My mother and father were married here, my grandmother and grandfather were married here,” she said, noting that her aunts and uncles and cousins were also parishioners over the years.

“I was grounded here,” Ellsworth said, adding, “…This wasn’t just a parish to me. This was a family to me. We all know each other.”

Another lifelong parishioner, Maria Cooke, also noted how she received her sacraments while growing up in the parish, and later taught in the school.

“It’s home,” she said. “I’ve had my best of times here, and (been supported in) my worst of times here. I love everything about it.”

Wandra Stone at left sings with other members of the Holy Redeemer Gospel Choir during the Nov. 27 Mass celebrating the D.C. parish’s 100th anniversary. (CS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

As the Holy Redeemer Hall filled with happy conversation and people enjoyed the brunch, sisters Yolanda Gonsalves Fell and Wandra Stone reflected on the impact that Holy Redeemer Parish has had on their lives. Both were baptized there, went to Holy Redeemer School and later married their spouses there.

Fell noted that they were taught “we’re all God’s children… We’re all a part of God’s plan.”

Stone, who sings in the choir, said, “I feel welcome every time I come.”

The parish’s founders “laid the groundwork for us,” Fell said, and Stone added, “they have gone to the Lord, and the generations after that keep us going. We’re now the ones that...”

“...need to continue the legacy,” Fell said, finishing her sister’s sentence. “…We learned lessons we need to pass on.”

A child walks down the aisle of Holy Redeemer Church in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 27. (CS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Earlier as people left the anniversary Mass, ushers handed them purple ribbons with a message reflecting Advent and the parish’s continuing legacy: “We carry the light.”