The 10:30 a.m. Mass at St. Brigid, celebrated by visiting Father William Norvel, lasted a good 90 minutes. But that wasn’t unusual at the popular Sunday liturgy. The gospel choir had done a rousing entrance to the beat of African drums. During the liturgy, there were rhythmic responses and sacred alleluias, a swinging “Gloria” and an “Our Father” that touched some deep spiritual part of you. A thundering piano led the music.
Now the ministers were processing from the altar, with the Josephite priest bringing up the rear, and heading down the center aisle. Choir members swayed back and forth as one body, clapping and singing out praise:
“How great is our God! … How great is our God! … How great, how great is our God!”
Father Norvel had to be pleased. The 80-year-old clergyman was smiling at members of the congregation. With his closely cropped graying hair, handsome face and easy-going walk, he could double for Morgan Freeman, the movie actor.
In 1979, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre asked the Josephites, the Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, to come to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The religious community, which ministered mostly to black Catholics, sent a young energetic priest. So when the cardinal offered him a choice of three parishes, Father Norvel picked St. Brigid because it served a predominately African American flock.
After arriving at the church on Western Avenue, however, what he saw unnerved him. With the demographic shift from Irish to black Catholics, Sunday Mass attendance had dropped to less than 200. “The church was hardly open,” he told The Tidings in 1987. Some three-quarters of the pews, in fact, were roped off in the steal-and-cement church built in the mid-1950s to hold 1,000. How was he ever going to build a new community of worshipers?
Earlier this month, Father Norvel returned to a different St. Brigid — not only to celebrate his 50th anniversary as a priest, but also the 35th anniversary of the gospel choir. He had transformed the inner-city parish as its pastor from 1979 to 1983. And a big part of that was the new choir he started.
“The whole idea behind that was to bring our black spirituality, culture and history into our workship service,” he told me. “There is a place for it, and we would not be whole until we did that. Otherwise, we were celebrating somebody else’s spirituality. So I wanted these people to celebrate our own by bringing in our gospel music. Because our gospel music contains our relationship with God our liberator and God’s relationship to us. God’s blessings upon us and God’s goodness to us.
“And it’s emotional,” he pointed out. “We believe that God redeemed not just the soul but the whole body of mankind. And so, therefore, when we worship the whole body responds to Almighty God.”
Nearby pastors “stood and watched” what was happening at St. Brigid, believing the loud, demonstrative singing and music was just a fad, according to the priest. But the real opposition came from some of his own African American parishioners. They thought it was Protestant, namely Baptist. And they had become Catholic because it was a step up.
“So I had to get them to understand that our culture, our spirituality was just as important, but we have to learn to celebrate it,” recalled Father Norvel. “The Holy Father told us to bring our gift of blackness to the Church. And that’s what we were all about in bringing that gospel music to the Church.”
An academic named Margaret Douroux helped get a choir off the ground with 13 members. Together they found a young man experienced in gospel music who became the choir’s first director. Charles Johnson and the pastor started weaving the music into a Sunday Mass. But it was a hard sell at times.
“When people got to know us, they understood that we were not there to destroy liturgy but to enhance it,” he said. “And once they understood that, they began to like gospel music. But it took a couple of years. Then they filled the whole church. We had to put chairs down the aisles and in the choir loft.”
Folks from nearby Catholic churches came by to see “what’s going on” at St. Brigid. Some parishes even started their own gospel choir. “But we were the first,” reminded Father Norvel with a wry grin.
From alto to bass
Charles Johnson was honored along with Margaret Douroux and Father Norvel at the 35th anniversary gala. It was held Oct. 23 at the California African American Museum near Exposition Park in Los Angeles. And it featured a choir from the Los Angeles chapter of the acclaimed Gospel Music Workshop of America. The workshop had also helped kick-start the church’s choir.
Illness forced Johnson to retire only a couple years ago, after directing L.A.’s first Catholic gospel choir for more than three decades. And his memories are still fresh.
“There were 13 members and everybody was really excited about it,” recalled Johnson. “I talked to them about my own experience. I told them to be prayerful and God would work through them. And that’s what happened. We prayed about it and more people showed up. I think the following Sunday after we started, six or seven people joined after hearing us. Our voices went from alto to bass.”
He also remembers the opposition. A pastor told him that gospel music didn’t belong in a Catholic church. A Baptist minister he knew said Catholics would never really buy it. But the son of deep-rooted Baptist preachers didn’t pay either any mind. He just said to himself, “That’s a lie. That’s not true.” He knew the passionate singing was first of all praying to God, and God would be pleased.
“It was the opposite of what people here were used to,” Johnson pointed out. “They were used to hymns, the classical form of music, the low-energy-level of music. I’m a high-energy-level person, and gospel is high-energy-level music. It was so opposite to what they were used to.”
When I asked if the original 13 had solid voices, he paused before saying they were the “kind of singers” you could make a choir out of. And that’s what he proceeded to do.
“With God in me, I was just determined to not let them fail,” he said. “I look back sometimes, I just break down in tears. Because I think about how God used me and he turned around St. Brigid to be a prototype. You know, he showed many churches what could be done.”
After a moment, he explained, “Gospel music enables you to participate. And if you sing long enough and clap your hands long enough, there’s a boldness that comes out of it. You know, things that you ordinarily wouldn’t do, you just go on and do.”
Of the original members, Dorine Sylvester is the only one still active in the choir. She sang at the Sunday Mass celebrated by Father Norvel, just like she does every Sunday morning.
“I joined because I wanted to sing,” she told me at the 35th anniversary gala. “I could not sing, but I wanted to sing. It was new to us and I wanted to be part of the growing group. So it was an adventure.”
The 70-year-old woman said the gospel choir was Father Norvel’s “baby,” and reported how Charles Johnson could hear a song once and start playing it on the piano, leading others to join in. She remembers when it was more than 100 strong. That was before nearby Catholic churches like Transfiguration, Holy Name of Jesus and St. Agatha started their own, taking away some singers from St. Brigid.
“So there has been ups and downs,” she acknowledged.
Shirley Massie, the current director, is a real talent, too, according to Sylvester. She’s brought “new blood” to the rebuilding assembly of 30 members.
After 35 years in the gospel choir, she’s still moved to tears while performing. “I don’t know how to explain it really,” said Sylvester. “Well, when you sing you pray twice. I do find that. And it’s a feeling from the heart — that when you sing you are praying twice.”
Praying twice is how Shirley Massie feels when she’s directing St. Brigid’s Gospel Choir the last few years. The musician was there at the beginning, too, but as a pianist.
“Charles [Johnson] mentored me in my gospel music, you know, in my style of playing,” she explained, sitting near the church’s Kawai grand piano. “It’s gospel. Charles played also. He played and directed and sang.”
Massie started playing the piano when she was five. And while she took private classical lessons, she grew up performing in a Baptist church in Houston, Texas. So she was more than familiar with the hard-driving, rhythm-based style she plays so well today at St. Brigid.
She believes gospel music is “another way of delivering the Word of God and touching the hearts of the people — trying to give them strength for another week to make it through.”
Good gospel not only uplifts the congregation, it brings hope.
“And it also is something that God hears and answers,” she said. “It’s like a prayer going up to God even as we respond with our music: ‘How great thou art!’”
For Massie, it’s very personal.
“When you’re really in music ministry, you understand that you have been anointed and called by God,” she said. “I just want to thank God for entrusting this ministry to me. And I just pray that even as we move forward that we will reach the potential that God has for us as a ministry.”
Praising the Lord
When Phaebra Croft, current president of the St. Brigid Gospel Choir, joined in the late 1980s, it was nearly 100 strong. She was in her 20s and bored singing traditional “white” hymns at her own church in South L.A.
“But when I got over to St. Brigid’s on Sunday morning, there was clapping and ‘praise the Lord’ in a very different way,” she said. “I was sold! And I haven’t been anywhere else since, except for a break to do prison ministry.”
LaVonne Anderson was also in her 20s when Father Norvel’s new gospel choir caught her attention. The cradle Catholic, who grew up in the parish, enjoyed the old Catholic hymns but soon came to love gospel, too.
“I’ve been in the parish for 41 years, and my commitment to the choir is based on, you know, my commitment to the parish,” she said. “My mom was the kind of person who told us that we couldn’t just go to church. We had to participate in some sort of a ministry. So as a young kid, I was a lector and then as I grew older I joined the choir.”
Singing gospel has become the bedrock of Anderson’s faith.
“You really are praying twice,” she pointed out. “You’re thinking it basically. And more than anything else, you feel it. With gospel music, you feel that in your soul. Not only is it coming out of your mouth, but you feel it in your soul.”
Croft, a special ed junior high teacher in Carson, reports that St. Brigid’s Gospel Choir was the first attempt to introduce the music into the liturgy of a Catholic church in Los Angeles. She says many local black Catholics, especially from southern states, were more comfortable with the outpouring worship services in many Baptist churches.
“Many people here were from the south, especially Louisiana like my family,” she said. “They were uprooted and moved. So they’re attracted by the homeliness that gospel music provided at St. Brigid.”
Both Charles Johnson and Shirley Massie are musical geniuses who got gospel “right,” according to Croft.
“Shirley is why I’m back,” she said. “Because there was a phase where it was lagging. So people were going to Holy Name [of Jesus], St. Agatha, St. Agnes and all those other parishes that had developed their own gospel choirs.
“I’m very satisfied now. And Father Michael [Okechukwu], our young pastor, is absolutely right. He loves music.”
Anderson agrees. “The group has become part of my Catholic life,” she said. “I think it speaks to the testament of the choir that gospel music in a Catholic church has lasted 35 years,” she pointed out. “St. Brigid’s been a beacon in the community basically because of its gospel choir.”
‘How great is our God’
Her arms up in the air, a bent over, gray-haired woman in a dark dress suit slowly danced her way down a side aisle of St. Brigid Church. She stopped just short of where the drummer, bass guitar player and pianist were set up off the altar — the gospel choir just beyond on rising steps. Members in their white robes, trimmed around the neck and sleeves with green and red bands, were leading the 10:30 a.m. Sunday congregation in the closing song of praise.
Now the visiting celebrant of the liturgy, Father William Norvel who founded the choir in 1980, was coming off the altar, following altar servers, lectors and other ministers, and drummers down the center aisle. Their exit enlivened the choir and musicians even more as the hammering beat grew and grew
Andrea Harris, the elderly woman, has been an usher at St. Brigid for 35 years, back when the choir began. She turned to face the departing former pastor, arms still flung high, hands clapping together. And her voice joined the choir and congregation: “How great is our God! … How great is our God! … How great, how great is our God!”