By Mary Howell, Special to The Catholic Virginian

On March 25, Catholics from across the Commonwealth gathered to recognize leaders from the African- American community. The Diocese of Richmond’s Office for Black Catholics hosted its first African-American Leadership Awards during a Saturday evening banquet at the Hilton Richmond Hotel & Spa/Short Pump.

“How fitting that on the Feast of the Annunciation, we celebrate those who’ve said ‘yes’ to service!” enthused Donna Toliver Grimes, assistant director of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in her keynote address.

Referencing the “Black Lives Matter” movement, she expressed concern about how much time many of us spend on the more trivial things in life and challenged attendees to consider “How are we bringing others to Christ through our works?”

Calling for parishes to renew their focus on adult faith formation activities, she also encouraged the audience to devote more of their day to contemplation, “the time when Jesus speaks to us.”

Grimes closed her address by sharing an audio recording of Ricky Byars Beckwith’s song “Serving the Spirit in a Jesus Kind of Way,” produced through the Agape International Spiritual Center. Lyrics such as “Show me a land where the joy of Jesus is in the servants’ hands” echoed her message.

Candice Cole, a reporter for WRIC Channel 8 and member of Richmond’s Holy Rosary Catholic Church, emceed the awards ceremony. She first introduced recipients of the Saint Katherine Drexel Award, named for the American-born saint who began the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and was a pioneer in educational outreach to black children. This award, which recognizes individuals who exhibit a high level of commitment to his or her faith in the Black Catholic community, was presented to Phyllis Booth, St. Elizabeth’s, Richmond; Mignon Chubb-Hale, St. Gerard’s, Roanoke; and Candra Parker, Holy Rosary, Richmond.

Next, the Father Augustus Tolton Award, which recognizes youth who have demonstrated leadership in our church, school and community, was presented to Enyojo Agene, St. John the Apostle Catholic School, Virginia Beach; Taiheem Churchwell, All Saints Catholic School, Richmond; and Torrion Espree, Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, Norfolk. Cole noted that a portion of funds raised during the event will be given in the form of scholarships to assist Black Catholic youth in continuing their Catholic education.

Torrion Espree of the Basicila of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk was one of three students who received the Fr. Augustus Tolton Award as part of the Black Catholic Leadership Awards Banquet.

The Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Msgr. Walter Barrett, Jr. and Sister Cora Marie Billings, both longtime leaders in ministry of the Diocese of Richmond.

Msgr. Barrett, a Richmond native, is currently pastor of Peninsula Parish Cluster which includes St. Joseph’s, Hampton; St. Mary Star of the Sea, Hampton; and St. Vincent de Paul, Newport News. Ordained a priest in 1975, Msgr. Barrett also serves as Vicar of the Diocese’s Eastern Vicariate.

Sister Cora, born in Philadelphia, is a member of the Sisters of Mercy who taught in Catholic schools. She previously served as director of the Richmond Diocesan Office for Black Catholics and was also pastoral coordinator of St. Elizabeth’s Parish in Richmond.

“Both Msgr. Barrett and Sister Cora have demonstrated untiring and passionate commitment, sharing their God-given talents to build bridges and foster relationships with people from all walks of life and all types of communities,” said Pam Harris, current director of the Diocesan Office for Black Catholics and Asian Ministry.

The Acacia Award, the highest honor being provided by the Diocese’s African Ministry, was presented to Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo. Named after a tree native to Africa that is named in the Old Testament as having been used to build the Ark of the Covenant, this award recognizes one’s years of service, support and fidelity to the Black Catholic community.

In accepting his award, Bishop DiLorenzo noted the influence of his mother and grandmother, who challenged him to support the Diocese’s Office for Black Catholics and its Advisory Council.

“Regardless of where I go, in African-American communities there is always plenty of humor, there is compassion, there is profound forgiveness, and there is a sense of perseverance,” he said.

The event closed with everyone singing the Black National Anthem, whose final verse opens with the poignant lines, “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who has brought us thus far on the way, Thou who has by Thy might, led us into the light.”

For more information about the award recipients or scholarships to assist Black Catholic youth, please contact Pam Harris at or (804) 622-5262.

(Mary Howell is a freelance writer and member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish in Quinton.)