The Israelites, we are told in the Bible, wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. The Ghanaians had wandered around the Bronx for about half that time looking for a parish home, still a long stretch by any measure.
But on Sunday they were finally able to celebrate, as they were formally welcomed as fully registered members into St. Luke’s parish, a parish that had suddenly been given a new lease on life. And celebrate they did in a colorful, festive Mass that lasted almost three hours, a liturgy replete with joyous singing, dancing, even cheering.
“It’s so uplifting,” beamed Father Steven Markantonis, who had only officially been named pastor at the rejuvenated St. Luke’s the day before.
“It really gives the community so much hope and the knowledge that miracles are possible and miracles happen.”
Even before the 4 p.m. Mass started, Ghanaians in colorful national dress lined up to register at folding tables set up outside the little stone church on 138th Street in the Bronx, giving the scene almost the aura of a political rally. Their fellow parishioners, mostly Puerto Rican and other Hispanics with a sprinkling of old guard Irish, dressed in blue St. Luke’s T-shirts, were there to greet them and welcome them to their new spiritual home. This parish had been earmarked for merger with nearby St. Jerome’s parish as part of the Making All Things New initiative. It was the influx of the Ghanaian community, some 900 strong, which allowed St. Luke’s to remain as a stand-alone parish.
“I told the people at all the Masses this is going to be a historic day in the life of this parish,” Father Markantonis said. “It’s going to be one for the parish history books and I didn’t want our parishioners to miss out on this event. It’s not every day that a parish single-handedly doubles in size.”
Previously the Ghanaians had shuttled from one Bronx parish to another. On this day they were welcomed with open arms. As the priests processed up the center aisle to the altar both new and old St. Luke’s members greeted them waving white handkerchiefs, a Ghanaian custom. While the people swayed in unison in the pews the choir the Ghanaians had assembled over 20 years of nomadic worship sang in the unmistakable melodic tones of Western Africa. Everyone sang along. Everyone.
“I was very happy to see there were so many,” said Father James Annor-Ohene, parochial vicar of St. Ann’s parish in Yonkers of the mostly Hispanic parishioners who greeted them. “If I’m not mistaken there were 200 or more. For me it showed a sense of welcoming because this is the first time we’ve moved to a place where those we are going to meet, not only the priests, but also the parishioners themselves are saying welcome. Look at the banners! Look at the T-shirts saying welcome. Those signs make you feel at home, that you belong and we are all in it together, we own it together and we will build it together. This is the first time we can call this place as our home, not just people renting. It is the greatest day in our history!”
A Ghanaian, Father Annor-Ohene had been the community’s chaplain during their long years of roaming the Bronx in search of a permanent spiritual home.
Sunday’s exuberant Mass was the result of months of hard work by a committee composed of both old guard St. Luke’s members and leaders from the Ghanaian community.
“Over the past few months, really since mid-June, there have been countless meetings—involving equal representation from both communities—meetings of the Transition/Implementation Committee, as well as the Liturgy; Finance; and Building & Maintenance Sub-Committee…and individual members as well,” explained Brother Tyrone Davis, C.F.C., director of the archdiocesan Office of Black Ministry. The Office of Black Ministry has been intimately involved with the Ghanaian community from the beginning.
“And, in all those meetings Father Steven was there leading the way into unfamiliar territory, with the hope of something new, more faith-filled and more positive for all. He not only attended meetings, but also concelebrated at a number of Masses with the Ghanaian Community while they were still at their previous location of St. Joseph—consistently sending a message of welcome. In one sense, he was administering two separate, very distinct communities, culturally different parishes or communities, despite the fact that he only had responsibility for one, St. Luke’s—quite an example of leadership, in the process of Making All Things New!”
During his homily, speaking in both English and Akan for those Ghanaians who could not understand English, Father Annor-Ohene made it clear that St. Luke’s was a common home for all parishioners, urging his fellow Ghanaians not to consider themselves part of a separate Ghanaian community but part of the fabric of St. Luke’s. “Christ is the force of our unity,” he told them. “We are a family, a new family of unity and diversity. Long live every member of the family.”
Long-time parishioner Eneida Aguilar acknowledged that St. Luke’s needed the infusion of new blood. “I guess our church was in a little trouble,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of parishioners and we were low on funds. And the Ghanaians were looking for a church. So it’s very good that this happened. It’s a blessing for us. We all get along and the church survives. That’s the best part of it.”
Following the Mass a welcoming reception overflowed the church hall and spilled out onto 138th Street, as good a sign as any that St. Luke’s is indeed back.
“Today is a real celebration,” said new parishioner Paulina Kwayie. “We started this community a long time ago and we’ve moved to several churches. So we are very excited to be here. We hope this will be our final place to call home.”
To her fellow Hispanic parishioners, she said, “We are very happy to meet them. We all worship the same God with the same faith.”
The importance of the day was driven home to Brother Tyrone when he received a telephone call from Ghana, from the Archbishop of Accra, Charles Palmer-Buckle, offering prayerful best wishes to Father Markantonis and his new flock.
“We want this community to feel right at home here,” affirmed Father Markantonis. “In a certain sense there is no more a Ghanaian community at St. Luke’s. It’s just St. Luke’s Parish. That’s what the integration is all about.
“I was very emotional,” he acknowledged of the beginning of the welcoming Mass. “Because we were talking about this, we were planning this for the last two and a half months. That’s all the time we were afforded. And now to see the fruit of all that is a really emotional experience. So exactly, I couldn’t imagine a bigger, more joyful event.”