In Buffalo, New York, an economically depressed city, where joblessness, despair and depression seemingly reign, something great is happening at St. Joseph University Catholic Church.
Located on Buffalo’s busy Main Street, right next to the University at Buffalo campus, St. Joseph’s attracts all types of people from all types of backgrounds. Welcoming everyone, from atheists to Bible-thumpers, St. Joseph’s is a community of faith drawing thousands on a weekly basis from all over Western New York. Young and old, rich and poor, students and professors, Catholics and evangelicals, black and white: they’re all there, focusing on Jesus Christ.
But what makes St. Joseph’s unusual, besides having a family-like, multi-cultural, multi-lingual constituency, is this: a predominantly white Catholic church is singing black Pentecostal gospel music.
Dr. Jackie Peoples, a black woman who sings like Aretha Franklin, is the director of St. Joseph’s University Contemporary Music Ensemble. Tim Wells, a white man who composes original music used at St. Joseph’s, joins Peoples as they both play pianos on the altar every Sunday at 11:30am Mass. Behind them are about 30 singers, along with a drummer, bass player, and the occasional bongo, flute, guitar or sax soloist.
The Contemporary Music Ensemble (or CME) is known for its rousing renditions of “This Little Light Of Mine,” “Oh Happy Day,” and “Lord, I Lift Your Name On High.” Songs by gospel legends Andrae Crouch and Richard Smallwood are prominently featured, as well as music from Kirk Franklin and the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. The CME also sings classic hymns and old Negro spirituals.
With so much talent gathered in one place, it made sense to reach out to people using music. So, Pastor Jack Ledwon, himself an accomplished musician, agreed with the CME that a praise and worship night would be something great, not only for the parish, but also for the community.
Catholic churches are not known for praise and worship nights. But St. Joseph’s held one, Saturday, April 23, 2005, and the large church was filled to capacity. More than 700 people came together from all sorts of diverse backgrounds to sing praises to the Lord. The event received coverage in local papers like The Buffalo News and Artvoice, helping attract hundreds of people who had never been inside the walls of St. Joseph’s before.
Helga Hickman, a first-timer from Niagara Falls, New York, said, “I’m a mutt. Methodist, Lutheran…and I never thought I’d see a concert like this in a Catholic church. It’s amazing. I can’t wait to tell all my friends about this place.”
The praise and worship night opened with Absolute Praise, a group of singers and musicians from Greater Refuge Temple, a Protestant congregation in Buffalo. They sang songs like “Trading My Sorrows” and Israel Houghton’s “I Lift Up My Hands.” The congregation was encouraged to lift their hands in the air (something not normally seen in a Catholic church in Buffalo) and they did.
Absolute Praise was followed by the CME, who were joined by members of area choirs (both Protestant and Catholic), including the young men and women of Canisius College, who got the crowd excited with the gospel song “Shabach.”
The music of the night was truly diverse, and included songs like “I’m Looking For A Miracle,” “It Is Well With My Soul,” “My Help,” “Through It All,” and “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.”
The evening also included a testimony time, when one woman told how God saved her daughter’s life.
Toward the end of the evening, the CME presented Pastor Ledwon with a framed piece of art, saying, “Thank you for letting us do the kind of music not normally heard in a Catholic church in Buffalo.”
The first praise and worship night at St. Joseph’s proved to be a wonderful time when people came together with Jesus as their focus. After a reception in the church’s community room, many attenders left asking, “When’s the next one?” For more information, please visit www.stjosephbuffalo.com.