The past decade has not been a good one for Roman Catholic priests. Their public image has been greatly tarnished from the devastating clerical abuse scandals which have rocked the Catholic Church in the United States and abroad. The effect has been demoralizing to both clergy and laity.
The majority of priests, however, have been faithful to their vocation. The stars among them can illumine the path for others to follow. One such brightly shining star, Father Damien DeVeuster, the Apostle of the Lepers of Molokai, in the Hawaiian Islands, was canonized on Oct. 11, 2009. He labored in sacrificial, loving service to the most abject of the Hawaiian people from 1873 through 1889. The ending of the decade with Father Damien’s canonization augurs well for the priesthood in future years.
Among other priests who have similarly radiated Christ’s sparkling light to others is Bernard J. Quinn, whose cause for canonization was begun by the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, in 2008. Born of Irish immigrant parents, Bernard and Sarah Quinn, in Newark, N.J., he was the last child in a family of seven children. During his adolescent years, he was released by the Newark diocese (now Archdiocese) to study for the priesthood of the Diocese of Brooklyn, comprising the Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens of New York City.
Plea for Home Missions
Ordained a priest on June 1, 1912, Father Quinn was assigned to St. Gregory the Great Church in Brooklyn. During 1917, he attended a quarterly clergy conference in the diocese and was moved by Bishop Charles McDonnell, the Ordinary, who pleaded with his priests to volunteer for work in the home missions of the Southern states, where the shortage of priests was acute among the growing white Catholic population.
Father Quinn thought that priests could also do missionary work among the black people of the Brooklyn diocese, which was preoccupied with the needs of European immigrants and overlooking the blacks who were moving there from the Southern states and the Caribbean Islands.
After expressing to Bishop McDonnell his interest in beginning this mission, Father Quinn was told to wait until the end of the First World War. The Bishop’s immediate concern was in recruiting chaplains to serve the American soldiers. Father Quinn volunteered and was assigned to serve the U.S. troops in the Burgundy region of France. In 1918, while on the hellish World War I battlefield, he was gassed with mustard poison. He recovered, but his health was undermined for the rest of his life.
After returning home from the war, Father Quinn eventually received permission to begin his missionary work among blacks. That got off the ground when Father walked the streets in search of Catholics in the black community and invited others to join the Catholic faith. He was thus serving in the likeness of the Good Shepherd who goes in search of his sheep.
The Little Flower’s Patronage
In 1921, Father Quinn founded St. Peter Claver Church and placed it under the patronage of Sister Thérèse of Lisieux who would be canonized in 1925. Through her intercession, black Catholics increased fourfold at the church with Father Quinn reaching out to them with indefatigable zeal. He had fallen for The Little Flower “head over heels” after reading her autobiography The Story of a Soul while he was an army chaplain in France, stationed a few miles from Alençon, the town of her birth.
How fortunate he was, while he still ministered to the soldiers after the war, to receive permission from his army superior to visit the home of Thérèse’s birth where he celebrated Mass on Jan. 2, 1919, the anniversary of her birth. He noted that the experience was “a very great privilege because I was the first priest to say Mass there.”
With the impending 1929 economic depression brewing, the poorest among the black families were not able to provide for their children. Father Quinn bought property in Wading River, Long Island, to establish an orphanage for these children. But he met with violent opposition from the KKK.
The action of the Klan members had been prodded by white community residents who objected to an orphanage for black children in their hamlet, with its scenic farmlands and wooded, undulating landscape that overlooked the Long Island Sound.
Threats on His Life
The orphanage that Father Quinn first erected in 1928 was burned down by the KKK. They waited, and after the priest rebuilt the orphans’ home in 1929, they again totally incinerated it. The diocese was silent throughout Father Quinn’s ordeal.
Also, New York’s Governor Alfred E. Smith, a Catholic and the Democratic Party’s 1928 U.S. Presidential Candidate, kept a low profile, for he had enough anti-Catholic detractors and was unwilling to become even more unpopular by intervening on behalf of Quinn’s black orphans.
Under threats to his life, Father Quinn stood up to his foes by defying them again in rebuilding the orphanage. He was ready to pay the ultimate price with his life for his orphan children as he had pledged to his parishioners, “...I would willingly shed to the last drop my life’s blood for the least among you.”
Father Quinn was, however, more valuable to them alive than as a martyr. With St. Thérèse’s intercession, hostility toward him ceased abruptly. He succeeded in establishing his orphanage, fittingly named The Little Flower House of Providence, which was dedicated on Oct. 26, 1930. This institution, later incorporated into the Little Flower Children and Family Services of New York, is still thriving.
The erection of the orphanage was followed by Father Quinn’s construction in 1931 of the St. Peter Claver Institute. Here the parish school and community center offered facilities for cultural programs, recreational activities, athletic sports, and free medical care to the black residents of Brooklyn. The building was awarded a bronze plaque for being the most attractive building to be erected in Brooklyn that year.
In 1932, Father Quinn founded St. Benedict the Moor Mission in Jamaica, Queens, N.Y.; the second black parish in the Diocese of Brooklyn. Although he was indisputably the quintessential priest in his evangelization of blacks who were then marginalized and at the fringes of society and the churches, Father Quinn didn’t accomplish this by himself.
Far from being a ‘‘superman priest,’’ he involved his parishioners in all aspects of his priestly ministry. He never ceased encouraging them to invite their friends and relatives to join the Church, and his efforts paid off in the huge number of conversions of blacks to the faith, for most of the years of his priesthood. Parishioners also joined forces with him in attending to the needs of the poor who were mired in the depths of poverty.
The Role of the Laity
Well known for his collaborative spirit in working with the lay members of his parish, Father Quinn was a precursor to the Second Vatican Council, which promulgated in its teachings the important role of the laity in contributing their gifts to build up the Body of Christ which is the Church. The Church’s mission is not only to preach the Gospel in far away, exotic, mission lands; it must also respond to the local pastoral situation where certain groups of people are seen as outsiders, voiceless, vulnerable, and disenfranchised.
Father Quinn found his mission to the underprivileged. He was truly a missionary to them and was supported in his work by Mother Katherine Drexel, American heiress and future saint, who had founded the Congregation of Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in 1891 for mission work among African and Native Americans. She aided Father Quinn immensely with both financial resources and the help of her Sisters.
After the Blessed Sacrament Sisters’ departure in 1937, Father Quinn received the help of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth who staffed his orphanage and parish school. He also founded a short-lived religious community of black brothers, one of whom, Leo Caesar, left an indelible mark on many people due to his holiness and extraordinary, dedicated service to the physical upkeep of the Wading River orphanage.
Father Quinn vehemently opposed institutionalized racism in society and within the Church, and suffered for rocking the boat. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle lauded him a ‘‘champion of Negro rights’’ at his death in 1940. Not surprisingly, Father Quinn was born on Jan. 15, 1888, the day Pope Leo XIII canonized St. Peter Claver, a Spanish Jesuit missionary who championed the rights of African slaves in Cartagena, Colombia, South America. Quinn also shares a January 15 birthday with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was born on that day in 1929.
St Thérèse Novena Services
As shepherd of the black people of the Brooklyn diocese, Father Quinn also shepherded the tumultuous crowds of white Catholics who attended the weekly St Thérèse novena services at St. Peter Claver Church during the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. Each Monday, approximately 10,000 devotees flocked to this novena where miraculous cures, both physical and spiritual, were said to have occurred. Indeed, St. Thérèse’s promise to spend her heaven doing good upon earth was partially fulfilled at St. Peter Claver Church.
The Irish immigrants went there because they felt that Father Quinn was ‘‘their priest,’’ one who understood their immigrant difficulties. The Italian immigrants showed their admiration for him by keeping the St. Thérèse shrine supplied with bundles of roses for the novena services. Father Quinn also reached out to Puerto Ricans by aiding the Catholic Church on their native island.
Like St. Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney, Father Quinn attracted long lines of penitents to whom he conveyed the tender mercy of God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He was truly a people’s priest. With a hearty sense of humor, Father loved people warmly and intensely, and his kindness was infectious.
Dispensing with the formality of his title of Monsignor, he was happy to be called simply ‘‘Father Quinn’’ by his parishioners or ‘‘Barney’’ by his close associates and friends. His heart was deeply rooted in his love for Jesus, for whom he showed a passionate fervor in his devotion to the Sacred Heart. St. Thérèse loved him excessively (as she similarly loves this author). There was nothing she would not do for Father Quinn, thus fulfilling her commitment to pray for priests who will always need her help.
Prayer Before the Blessed Sacrament
A prayerful priest, Father Quinn spent much of his free time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament in church and was often seen outdoors praying the Rosary or the Liturgy of the Hours. Whenever he was with people, he was at home with them and they also with him. Recently-found 8mm silent motion films of Father Quinn capture his friendliness with the children of The Little Flower House of Providence Orphanage and with people of different social positions.
Father Quinn died on Sunday morning, April 7, 1940, in St. Mary’s Hospital in Brooklyn, after succumbing to a very painful battle with carcinoma. His funeral, recorded on one of these films, shows the thousands of mourners on the streets outside the church as reported in The New York Times , April 11, 1940.
Since his death, Father Bernard J. Quinn has been revered and his memory kept alive, but the task of initiating the cause for his canonization fell upon this author. Among many persons claiming the intercession of Father Quinn is Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, the head of the Brooklyn Diocese, who testified to what ‘‘seems,’’ through Father Quinn’s intercession, to be a miraculous recovery of his heath after complications from quadruple bypass surgery. The article appeared in the Nov. 7, 2009, edition of The Tablet , the weekly diocesan newspaper. This is very positive for the cause.
For information about seeking the intercession of Father Bernard J. Quinn or about purchasing the biography Quintessential Priest by Paul W. Jervis [Editions DuSigne, Publisher 2005], you may contact (718) 622-4647 or firstname.lastname@example.org TP.
Msgr. Jervis, Postulator for the Cause of the Canonization of Monsignor Bernard J. Quinn, is the pastor of St. Martin de Porres Parish, consisting of St. Peter Claver, Our Lady of Victory, and Holy Rosary Churches in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, N.Y. Ordained in 1983 for the Brooklyn diocese, he was a former high school and minor seminary chaplain and served in several parishes in the diocese.