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A Black Catholic choir almost forgotten in the day's ado

The Black Catholic angle of the Biden-Harris inauguration day was not impossible to find, but it wasn't obvious either. Such is the life of double minorities.

As the world tuned in to the inauguration of our second Catholic president and first Black, female, or Asian vice-president, my mind (and eyes) were admittedly elsewhere.

For the past 3 months, I've had an itch for all things Black Catholicism. And that means constantly searching for the Black Catholic angle, no matter the person, place, or event at hand.

And since the inauguration itself featured no Black Catholic speakers or performers of which I am aware, for this angle I had to look elsewhere. In this case, I had to look to the events of a morning Mass.

In case anyone wasn’t aware, our new president, Joseph Biden, is a practicing Catholic. So Catholic, if you will, that he even enjoys Daily Mass from time to time.

Indeed, today he attended church before his civil consecration. And he did so at one St Matthew Cathedral—which many might be surprised to learn is the seat of Cardinal Wilton Gregory. (The nearby Immaculate Conception shrine isn’t even a diocesan parish.)

However, the good archbishop isn't the main angle, though he did offer a prayer for the newest member of his flock—much like he did last night for the nearly 400,000 American victims of the coronavirus.

No, today's real treat was the Mass’ inclusion of the choir from St Augustine Church, often the first referent for residents, former residents, and former tourists on the topic of Black Catholicism. It is also the oldest Black Catholic church in DC, formed in what was originally part of the nation’s first diocese. It is also one of the largest Black parishes in the country.

The choir is perhaps the most recognizable in all of Black Catholic music, making them the perfect invite to welcome Biden back to the archdiocese of Washington, their home for over 160 years.

And lest it be forgotten, the event was a kind of return for the choir as well.

St Augustine, founded under the name a century after the founding of the country, actually began in the same cathedral—in a time when the racist, anti-Black law of the land was also the quasi-canon law of the US Church, forcing the parish's Black Catholics to worship in the basement.

In 1858, Washington’s Black Catholic pioneers struck out on their own, forming a parish they named after St Martin de Porres (a little over two decades after he was beatified). They would soon found DC's first Black school.

8 years later, using proceeds from an Independence Day fundraiser at President Lincoln's house (held with his and Mary Todd’s permission), they built a new church— soon after choosing for its name an already canonized African saint: Doctor Augustine.

The building was sold and demolished some 70 years later, in the late 1940s, and the former Washington Post building was built in its place.

During the Civil Rights Movement, the church merged with St Paul's, becoming St Paul and Augustine Church, before once again taking the name of Augustine alone in 1982.

The parish choir soon recorded multiple albums under the direction of the legendary Leon C. Roberts, including his debut “Deliver the Word” in 1985 and two promotional albums for the first edition of the "Lead Me, Guide Me" Black Catholic hymnal (which he helped create in 1987).  

Vol. 1 of the latter two albums is included in the Library of Congress, and Roberts also led a notable choir of his own known as Roberts Revival.

The Post itself would go on to cover the St Augustine choir on multiple occasions, including a 1990 benefit concert in Japan, their return four years later, and Roberts’ passing from stomach cancer in 1999.

The choir, having sung in Rome for Pope St John Paul II during his pontificate, performed for President Clinton multiple times, and for Pope Benedict and President Bush in 2008.

They sang for Biden twice during his vice presidency, before putting out their most recent album in 2012. They later feted President Obama and Pope Francis during the latter's visit to DC in 2015.

Today, the choir's liturgical service at the cathedral, under the direction of Samuel Cromwell, was covered by WaPo without mention of the music—which included, among other pieces, the infamous "On Eagle's Wings" and Black composer Nolan Williams Jr.'s "Hallelujah Amen".

America Magazine also covered the event, mentioning the former song directly but making no mention of the specific significance of St Augustine, or that of its presence in its former home.

So it goes, inside and outside the media. Indeed, tomorrow's inauguration prayer event will feature a bevy of speakers and prayers from nearly every race, gender, and religion—but no Black Catholics.

Oh well. At least the Cardinal and the Choir got a little bit of shine this week.

I'm sure they prefer service to the spotlight anyway.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder of Black Catholic Messenger, a priesthood applicant with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).