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Brenda Burns wants education of all races to be at forefront of Diocese of Wilmington Black Catholics ministry: Photo gallery

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Brenda Burns prays during the St. Martin de Porres Mass at St. Joseph's Church, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020. Dialog photo/Don Blake

It’s hard to think of a more difficult time in recent memory to take over as a diocesan Ministry for Black Catholics director, but Brenda Burns is no stranger to new endeavors.

And she wants people to know Black Catholics aren’t new additions to the community.

When Bishop Malooly called Burns, 77, and asked her to take over the director role in the Diocese of Wilmington, she had already completed lengthy stretches in prior careers and had been a longtime contributor to her parish and diocese.

“I am so appreciative that Brenda has accepted this appointment and does so with her usual enthusiasm,” the bishop said in making the announcement.

The New Castle resident spent about 30 years as a member of St. Joseph’s Parish on French Street in Wilmington and director of its gospel choir. When the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Name Province announced they would be leaving the Wilmington diocese as part of a reorganization, it included the departure of Father Paul Williams, pastor of St. Joseph’s who had also been director of Ministry for Black Catholics.

So, it wasn’t a big surprise when her phone rang, and she was asked to take over the diocesan role. She’d served 10 years on the Black Catholics board.

“Next thing I know, the bishop called and said Father Paul had nominated me,” Burns said. “I said I would love to do it. There’s so much that needs to be done.”

Work is nothing new to the Chester, Pa., native. She worked through two careers, first in sales service, travel management and procurement with the former Scott Paper for 25 years. During that time, she worked to achieve her bachelor’s degree from Wilmington University. After achieving retirement there, she set about to her next career. She gained a master’s degree in school counseling and got a job with the Colonial School District, where she was a school counselor for 21 years. She also earned a master’s in theology from Xavier University of Louisiana Institute of Black Catholic Studies.

The proud mother of two and grandmother of three is now on to career No. 3 during a time when Blacks in the nation and church continue to try to mitigate and eliminate systemic racism and prejudice. She’s no stranger to the problems.

Burns can point to situations in her life where she has experienced racism, both in social settings and at church. She also knew to have “the talk” with her children and grandchildren, training them to beware of potential trouble that might find them due to the color of their skin. She doesn’t want to ignore sins of the past, but she mostly wants to work to bring action to make things better in the world and church.

Ultimately, she wants racism to go away, if not in her lifetime, then during the lives of her children or grandchildren.

She believes education is key and she wants to educate people of all races about the long, rich history of Blacks in the church.

“We’re no Johnny-come-latelys to the Catholic Church,” Burns said. “I have found little to no knowledge among people of Black Catholic history. One of my goals is to let folks know we are not new to the Catholic Church.

“We need to find a way to incorporate any vehicle that can reach people and let them know we are totally Black and authentically Catholic.”

Gospel singers from Wilmington in the front row of the installation Mass for Archbishop Perez about two hours before the start.
Dialog photo/Joseph P. Owens

Calling this career No. 3 is selling Burns a bit short. She worked in nursing as a younger person and also had a part-time gig playing gospel music on a radio program for 10 years. And that is on top of running the gospel choir, which this year had an important role in being among those singing at the installation of Archbishop Nelson Perez in Philadelphia. The choir work started shortly after she began attending St. Joseph’s in the early 1990s.

“When I went to St. Joseph’s, I felt like I was home,” she said.

“I’m excited about this. We need to be about a good, Christian life.”

Burns is trained as a liturgist and has conducted liturgy workshops and other duties at St. Joe’s. She has also served as grand lady of the Knights of Peter Claver at the parish.

She knows her new role includes an uphill climb as hateful incidents happen here and elsewhere and reactions often include violence.

“It’s a mindset that has carried for 400 years. White privilege is something you have, and you don’t even know it. Systemic racism has been around for so very long, it has become standard operating procedure. I don’t know how to describe it, but it continues to exist.

“I do hope it can be changed. People of the Caucasian race who care about it have to be the ones to end it. It has to begin with our friends from other races. And we can be there to support it. I am hopeful it can be reduced to where it’s eliminated.

“I think the church is a great place to start.”