Brooklyn Jesuit Prep Aims to Add Black Catholic History to Curriculum

Tags: Currents Brooklyn, NY, Children, Crown Heights, Crux, Education, Faith, Faith Formation, Faith in New York City, Fall, Family, Inspiration, Queens, NY

By Emily Drooby

The staff of Brooklyn Jesuit Prep are packing up the school and preparing for their move from Crown Heights to East Flatbush. But a new home is not the only change in the works for the next academic year –  the school is also planning a renewed emphasis on teaching Black Catholic history. 

“We have done a decent job but I want to be able to do even more,” said Father Mario Powell, president of Brooklyn Jesuit Prep. “I want to be able to bring in story tellers that know this history for us to be able to pass that down to our students.” 

Fr. Powell believes the best way to help his students shape the future is by teaching them more about the past.

“It is a story of oppression and racism, but it’s also a story of triumph, it’s a story of evangelization and I think Catholics both Black and White and Brown and everything in between should learn this history and I think it’s a part of who we are as a Church,” he said.

Fr. Powell is a former history teacher and for him, kids armed with historical knowledge are better equipped to fight against the sin of racism.

“When we become ignorant of it, we allow others to weaponize our ignorance,” he said. “That is simply, not beyond being good, it’s something that we can’t afford in this day and age.”

He points out that history also reveals the inspirational stories of heroes – like Father Augustus Tolton. The former slave – ordained as America’s first Black Catholic priest in 1886 – is now on the path to sainthood, thanks to Pope Francis. 

“Which you would hope would lead to more vocations,” Fr. Powell added.

For Father Dwayne Davis, the pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Flatlands and administrator at Our Lady Help of Christians, he’s a student of history himself and mentors children in the Brooklyn Diocese.

“To learn that, you too, a Black man, can actually become a priest, it’s very interesting,” said Fr. Davis. “I find in the United States sometimes when I tell people I’m a priest, they don’t understand it, because the concept of a Black priest is almost non-existent. In a church typically, you can find Black Catholic priests more often than not here in the Diocese of Brooklyn.”

The diocese has more than 450 priests in Brooklyn and Queens. Forty-four – almost 10 percent of them – are Black.

Nationwide, there are almost 36,000 priests, with only 250 being African-American, or less than one percent.  

Fr. Davis thinks a big way to get those numbers to go up is for kids today to understand the groundwork laid by Black Catholic leaders like Father Tolton.

“I definitely think our young people don’t know enough about Black Catholic history, and especially Black Catholic history in the United states,” he said.