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Saint be praised? Church moves to beatify Civil Rights priest from Bed-Stuy

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The county named Kings may finally be getting its first saint.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn has moved forward in the lengthy process to determine whether Msgr. Bernard J. Quinn, the founder of St. Peter Claver Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant and an early proponent of civil rights for blacks, should ascend to sainthood.

Quinn, a Newark-born Irishman who was the son of a longshoreman, embraced and empowered the borough’s African- and Caribbean-Americans, establishing St. Peter Claver for black Catholics in 1922, building an adjoining school that claims the late singer Lena Horne as a graduate, and clashing with the Ku Klux Klan in Long Island after he built an orphanage for black children in 1928.

The Klan burned the building to the ground twice.

“He took a stand,” said Rev. Paul Jervis, St. Peter Claver’s current pastor and the principal promoter of the sainthood quest. “He saw it as evil for the Klan to force him to move. He felt he had to take a stand and defend the rights of the children. He was simply not going to give in.”

And he didn’t. The Little Flower Orphanage was rebuilt a second time in 1930, and stands to this day.

Jervis, who wrote a 2005 biography of Quinn entitled “The Quintessential Priest,” said Quinn’s sainthood is a no-brainer — especially now.

“His canonization is important at this particular time, when there seems to be so much hostility between Christians and Muslims over the mosque near Ground Zero. Msgr. Quinn was a priest who united people,” Jervis said.

The canonical inquiry is the first embarked upon by the Brooklyn diocese since its creation in 1853. The goal of the formal process is to determine whether a candidate is morally worthy of sainthood, and ultimately, whether at least two miracles can be attributed to him — a stage that has yet to be encountered by those promoting Quinn’s cause.

Born on the same day as Martin Luther King Jr., Quinn died in 1940 at the age of 52, decades before this country’s civil rights movement would emerge. But Quinn did his part to nudge it along, prevailing on political powers, businesses and the church that they should not discriminate against blacks.

“No church can exclude anyone and still keep its Christian ideals,” Quinn said in 1929.

Some 8,000 people attended his funeral, according to news accounts of the time.

Before St. Peter Claver, Quinn served as chaplain in the 333rd Machine Gun Infantry Regiment in World War I, where he had been shot at and gassed.

Undaunted by the horrors of the Great War, he served a variety of parishes, including Our Lady of Mercy in Downtown, where he first became interested in the plight of the borough’s African Americans. He was made monsignor in 1923 and assigned to St. Peter Claver. He would later go on to establish a second parish for blacks in Queens named for St. Benedict the Moor.

The road to sainthood, or canonization, can be a long one — in some cases taking decades for the Vatican to grant its approval. Quinn is in the early stages of the process, as a panel of theologians has just started to investigate his life.

“I am delighted to be given the privilege to preside at the opening of the cause of canonization for this priest who was a courageous and tireless proponent of the equality of all people,” DiMarzio said in a statement.

There are roughly 3,000 saints in the Roman Catholic Church. Brooklyn can not claim its own saint, but it does have a connection to two other current candidates: Bishop Francis Ford, a missionary who was born in Brooklyn and died in Chinese custody in 1952; and Rev. Felix Varela, an early 19th-century human rights advocate who worked in Brooklyn.

Even those who didn’t know Quinn directly — or even pray in the same church — were moved by him.

Jamaican immigrant Loretta Cousins lived in Quinn’s parish, but as an Episcopalian, she never had the occasion to meet him.

“One night she had a dream that Msgr. Quinn told her to make her youngest child Catholic,” said Clinton Hill resident Delores Casey, who was the youngest of Cousins’ four children.

Her mother obeyed — and baby Delores was raised Catholic.

“My mother was a woman of faith and love. She trusted this man so much that she was willing to put her baby daughter in the hands of people who demonstrated that they hated black folks.”

The dream turned out to be fortuitous — for Quinn’s cause. Today, Casey is president of the Guild for the Canonization of Msgr. Quinn, a group that seeks to popularize his life and work through speaking engagements and speaking to the media.

To learn about the Msgr. Quinn, go to http://fatherquinn.org.

Updated 5:20 pm, July 9, 2018
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