By John Alexander and Jessica Easthope
Ten years ago, Sophie Nsougan had just immigrated to the United States from Togo in West Africa. While looking to find work, Nsougan took the opportunity to help introduce and integrate the unique sounds of her native country into the Mass at St. Joseph’s Church in Jamaica, Queens.
It was a traditional blending of African rhythms with the steel drum sounds of the Caribbean islands. The result was the church’s first African Heritage Mass in 2013. According to Nsougan, it was a way to share her culture and allow everyone to embrace the world and the rhythm they left behind.
“We would invite people from other Catholic churches to the Mass, and one year we had a priest come all the way from Togo, and another year we had a priest come from the West African country of Benin,” explained Nsougan. “We would also have kids dressed up in costumes from the motherland and they would bring different fruits like oranges and pineapples as offerings during the Mass,” she added.
Father Chris J. Piasta, who has served as St. Joseph’s pastor since 2010, and is also the Catholic chaplain at LaGuardia and JFK Airports, credited Nsougan with being a vital force behind the African Heritage Mass. “She was probably one of the most, if not the most, engaged in preparing that Mass and sending out the information and visiting with African parishioners in the diocese,” he said.
Father Piasta explained that St. Joseph’s is home to a significant number of African immigrants, predominantly from West Africa and places such as Senegal and from all along the coast, encompassing about 25 different countries. In addition, there is a notable Caribbean community within the parish.
“So years back we decided to celebrate their heritage simply because they all come to a standard Mass that is being said in English,” he said. “But I wanted them to have a feel for their culture at least once a year so they could feel more at home and manifest their heritage and background, which also includes their music and how they celebrate the liturgy. We know that certain cultures have their own way of celebrating the liturgy, and that’s why we did it.”
The African Heritage Mass proved so popular that worshippers would come from beyond the diocese and even from out of state.
Father Piasta, who was born in Poland and whose family is from Germany, admitted that he has always been fascinated by the different cultures that make up his parish community.
“It’s something I truly feel passionate about because the beginnings of the church and the future of the church has everything to do with Africa, and it is deeply rooted in that continent that is home to so many Catholics today,” he explained.
The African Heritage Mass also blends in a sampling of calypso and music from the islands. Father Piasta explained that he spent years working in radio broadcasting while in Europe and developed an affinity for music from around the world, including artists such as African singer-songwriter Miriam Makeba. “It’s the kind of music I would listen to at home,” said Father Piasta, who recently became a Knight of Peter Claver, a largely African American fraternal organization.
St. Joseph’s music director Kevin Robinson says that his goal is to have the culture present every Sunday and to make it a part of the Black Catholic experience. Robinson is an accomplished jazz musician in his own right and expresses a love for gospel music as well.
“My parents are from the Caribbean, and I’m from Panama and Jamaica so I have all of that blended together in a gumbo,” he said. “I have all those influences — reggae, calypso, jazz, rhythm and blues — and I try to mix all that together in my style of playing.
Robinson, who recently became music director at St. Joseph, credits Father Piasta with allowing him the freedom to perform the music for the African and Caribbean members of the congregation. He cites as an example taking a song like “Amazing Grace” and performing it in a calypso or reggae style, which he says the parishioners love hearing.
He adds that this method works with other popular hymns such as “How Great Thou Art,” which he likes to arrange in a Mahalia Jackson or Aretha Franklin gospel style. He also admits to putting a reggae or calypso spin on traditional favorites such as “Blessed Assurance” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” as a way to offer a variety of musical samplings to the congregation.
“Among the Black Catholics there is a hunger for not only the traditional hymns but also music that speaks to the Black Catholic experience,” Robinson explained. “And that includes the immigrant community, the Caribbean community, and the style of music that they use, including reggae and calypso, so we try to blend those together. And it largely depends on the pastor because some may not be so agreeable, but we’ve been blessed with Father Chris.”
And far as the music itself, Robinson said that the church will bring in additional instruments such as a steel drum for a calypso flavor, or African drums, in order to supplement the “praise and worship” ensemble of six vocalists and musicians in the band who play trumpet and keyboard.
Recently, Robinson spearheaded a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. that blended King’s “I Have a Dream” speech with an Aretha Franklin-inspired rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
Parishioner Myles Petillo channeled the spirit of Dr. King by reciting his moving words, and was joined by the vocalist Fabienne Volcy for “Precious Lord,” and the congregation loved it.
Today parishioners at St. Joseph still look forward to the Mass, which had been halted briefly due to the pandemic, as a way to celebrate music that emerged from all parts of the African continent.
The Mass was originally encouraged by then-Diocese of Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, who viewed it as a means to promote cultural unity and social justice within the diocese, and to prove that through cultural music God’s love crosses continents.