Healy Award dinner honors service to Black Catholic community

WESTWOOD -- For the first time in three years, the Bishop James Augustine Healy Award Dinner was able to take place in person on Nov. 12 at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Westwood, giving members and friends of the Black Catholic community the chance to gather in fellowship and honor their past and present leaders.

The Bishop James Augustine Healy Award is presented each year to a practicing Black Catholic who has shared the Gospel through leadership and service, been a witness of faith and compassion, and encouraged a healthy Black Catholic identity.

The award is typically presented at a dinner, which also serves as a celebration of the history and culture of the archdiocese's Black Catholic community. But the annual event had to be held differently during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2020, a virtual program was held in lieu of the dinner, honoring past recipients of the Healy Award. In 2021, the award presentation took place during a vespers service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

This year, the Healy Award was presented to Ruth O. Villard, who has over 20 years of volunteer experience in different community organizations and ministries. These include the archdiocese's Black Catholic Choir, Action for Boston Community Development, the Ladies Auxiliary of the Knights of Peter Claver, and the Mayor's Advisory Council.

Felix Okwesa, a member of St. Katharine Drexel Parish, served as the master of ceremonies during the dinner and speaking program at St. Margaret Mary Church. Notable guests included Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, archdiocesan Secretary for Social Services Father J. Bryan Hehir, and many past recipients of the Healy Award and Robert Leo Ruffin Award, which honors practicing Catholics who have served the Black Catholic community. The Archdiocese of Boston Black Catholic Choir provided music throughout the evening.

In his greeting, Father Paul Soper, archdiocesan secretary for evangelization and co-pastor of St. Margaret Mary Parish, said the gathering was "such a joyful moment."

"To have a Healy dinner again at last, I'm just so grateful to the Lord and to you," he told the assembly.

Lorna DesRoses, evangelization consultant of the archdiocese's Black Catholic Ministries, spoke about "ubuntu," the Bantu word for "humanity." She related this concept with St. Paul's teaching about being one body, rejoicing when one part rejoices and suffering when one part suffers.

She called for a moment of silence in remembrance of two recently deceased community members: Kathy Heffernan, who received the 2018 Ruffin Award along with her husband Jim; and Ernest Alls, the 2003 Healy Award recipient.

"We know they are now part of that great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. And so, let us pray for them and ask them to pray for us, because the effect, the example of their faith in God, and their leadership are ripples that will continue to resonate throughout this community for years to come," DesRoses said.

The guest speaker of the evening was Robert Gittens, the executive director of Bridges Homeward, who received the Healy Award in 1998. He shared a reflection on the experience of the Black Catholic community in Boston from the 1800s to the present day.

"It is so good to once again be able to celebrate the richness of our community and our history in person," Gittens said.

He spoke about the life and legacy of Bishop Healy, the first Black Catholic bishop in the U.S., who began his priestly ministry by serving in the Diocese of Boston for 21 years. However, Gittens pointed out, it was not his accolades, but his "legacy of service and advocacy" that they remembered. Bishop Healy was especially focused on helping Native Americans, Civil War orphans, and victims of child labor.

"It is that commitment to service -- service in the name of Jesus on behalf of those less fortunate -- that we celebrate and seek to emulate today," Gittens said.

He also shared the history of the National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC). Originally called the Colored Catholic Congress, it convened five times in the late 1800s, but almost a century went by before it began meeting regularly again. In the mid-1980s, the NBCC was reestablished as a coalition of Black Catholic organizations, and the first reconvening took place in 1987. Gittens attended that meeting and a few subsequent gatherings of the congress.

"It opened up a whole new world for me about the richness and depth of our Black Catholic identity and spirituality and those who practice it. It helped me see a much broader world of Black Catholic leadership and community engagement," he said.

The 13th NBCC gathering will be held in July 2023 in Maryland with the theme "Write the Vision: A Prophetic Call to Thrive." Gittens said the archdiocese will hold a day of reflection in December in anticipation of the congress.

He acknowledged that much has happened in the last few years, including the coronavirus pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and conflict in many countries around the world.

"It's been an extraordinary time that we shall not soon forget. And yet we are called to thrive, to strive, to build the kingdom of God. Despite these grim stories, we come to this evening with faith, faith in the Lord, a faith that will see us through and guide our steps," he said.

Father Oscar Pratt, pastor of St. Katharine Drexel Parish, and Meyer Chambers, director of the Black Catholic Choir, together presented the Healy Award to this year's recipient, Ruth Villard.

"Ruth has always been at the forefront of ministry in the Black Catholic community, but never seeking to be center stage," Father Pratt said before the award presentation.

He told Villard she has been "both an inspiration and a role model for Christian ministry and discipleship."

As she accepted the award, Villard told the assembly, "I don't feel no way tired. I am on the battlefield for my Lord."

Cardinal O'Malley offered closing remarks, reflecting on the significance of the Healy Award Dinner.

"This is the way that we hold up our celebrities, our heroes, like Ruth (Villard) and so many others who, with their lives of discipleship, are teaching us all how to live the Gospel today," he said.