Okaloosa County's Catholic Black History Mass returns to Niceville

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NICEVILLE — It isn’t just a Black History Mass; it’s a Catholic Mass.

Roland Simmons, the vice president of the Catholic African American Cultural Awareness Group of Okaloosa County, explained that the evangelistic organization’s yearly Black History Mass is open to everyone. The event was created to increase awareness culturally and spiritually within their families, community, church and workplace, and reach out those who are unchurched.

While it’s normally hosted during Black History Month in February, they swapped it to January to avoid interfering with Super Bowl Sunday, he said.

“We are a visible sign of Black involvement in the Catholic Church,” Simmons said. “I think it's bringing everybody together and realizing that the Catholic Church is not just a predominantly white church, but it also has many Black Catholics and many Black parishioners who do attend. We'd like to be involved totally — not just one day of the year; we'd like to be involved every day of the year. That's why we try to have visibility on this particular timeframe.”

Bishop Martin Holley.
Bishop Martin Holley.

The 40th and 41st combined annual Black History Mass is Jan. 30 at Christ Our Redeemer Catholic Church at 1028 White Point Road east of Nicville. A 30-minute concert at 2 p.m. will proceed the Mass.

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The Most Rev. Martin D. Holley from Pensacola will be the homilist and main celebrant. His last assignment was as the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, Tennessee, Simmons said.

This year’s theme is “Love One Another as We Give God Glory and Praise.”

“Basically, it's compiling everybody together,” Simmons said. “We love one another, we do. But we also want to give God glory and praise, because he's the one that really keeps us joined together and bonded like cement.”

Many of the organization’s members attend different churches, so the clergy at the event are from different areas, Simmons said. The Knights of Columbus will attend, and musicians from St. Joseph and St. Anthony's churches in Pensacola will perform music with direction from Gabriel Brown and conductor Frank Cole.

The Anointed Angels of Grace Praise Dancers, directed by Barbara Oxendine, will also perform. Simmons looks forward to it.

“It’s a really nice ceremonial dance that they do,” he said. “They dance around the altar and it's really unique. They have four dancers and they have these flowing light rafters that they take with them.”

The 39th annual liturgical celebration commemorating Black History Month was presented by the Catholic African-American Cultural Awareness Group of Okaloosa County at the St. Mary Catholic Church in Fort Walton Beach. This year's combined 40th and 41st event will be Sunday at Christ Our Redeemer Catholic Church in Niceville.
The 39th annual liturgical celebration commemorating Black History Month was presented by the Catholic African-American Cultural Awareness Group of Okaloosa County at the St. Mary Catholic Church in Fort Walton Beach. This year's combined 40th and 41st event will be Sunday at Christ Our Redeemer Catholic Church in Niceville.

Simmons has been involved with the Catholic African American Cultural Awareness Group of Okaloosa County since it started 41 years ago. It became a reality with the help of a priest, the Rev. Brendan J. Heaslip, pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church, and a few Catholic members from parishes within the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee in 1981, Simmons said.

The group is designed primarily to spread awareness and have fun, he said.

“We only get once a month normally to be recognized, but we try to keep it throughout the year,” Simmons said.

The Most Rev. René Henry Gracida, bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee, gave his blessings on the first celebration in 1982 at Holy Name of Jesus parish, Simmons said. Eglin Air Force Base Catholic Chaplain Maj. Leo T. Sweeney hosted the celebration in 1985 at the base chapel, he added.

“In 1986, Most Rev. J. Keith Symons announced that the celebration would be an annual event, and because of growth in attendance it would be held at St. Mary parish, Fort Walton Beach,” Simmons said.

The Rev. Francis P. Killeen was the first to host the celebration at St. Mary.

This year’s event is considered the 40th and 41st combined because it was canceled last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, Simmons said.

“I'm looking forward to people coming out and really joining hands and getting to know people,” he said. “Since we've been in this COVID lockdown, we haven't had a chance to really see each other and talk to each other or feel each other too much. But I'm trying to get people together so they can show their love and their interest in different things.”

Simmons hopes people who haven't heard spiritual music will come to the event.

“Some people will get a chance to clap their hands and do things that they normally don't do in the regular Masses in church,” he said. “They can enjoy the music they don't normally have access to it throughout the year. They get pumped up and have a good time. I encourage all Catholics interested in justice, reconciliation and peace to commit to learning about the central place of Black people in the church’s long and complex history.

"Black history is and always has been Catholic history.”

This article originally appeared on Northwest Florida Daily News: Okaloosa County cultural awareness group to host Black History Mass

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