Two women smile as they sit next to each other. Elizabeth Johnston (left), coordinator of life issues and cultural ministries for the Diocese of Rochester, and Sister Roberta Fulton, SSMN, director of cultural diversity for the Diocese of Buffalo, are seen together at the 13th National Black Catholic Congress in July 2023. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Johnston)

Rochester, Buffalo dioceses’ cultural ministries work together

Last summer, two dozen people traveled from the Diocese of Rochester to Maryland to attend the National Black Catholic Congress with approximately 3,000 other people from throughout the United States. After deciding where to sit for the event’s opening Mass, the Rochester pilgrims realized the people sitting right in front of them were virtually neighbors, as they hailed from the Diocese of Buffalo. 

“It’s pretty funny how it happened,” remarked Elizabeth Johnston, coordinator of life issues and cultural ministries for the Rochester Diocese. 

As luck would have it, Johnston’s seat was directly behind that of Sister Roberta Fulton, SSMN, who is the director of the Buffalo Diocese’s Office of Cultural Diversity/Social Justice

“Isn’t that unbelievable?” asked Sister Fulton. “We had talked about connecting with Rochester before the congress, but we didn’t get in touch with them in enough time.” 

This impromptu meeting between Sister Fulton and Johnston paved the way for ongoing collaboration between the two women and their respective dioceses, they said.

Rochester, Buffalo diocese’s cultural ministries had worked together before 

Such collaboration was not without precedent, Johnston said, noting that the two dioceses used to work together on gatherings and celebrations for Hispanics and for Black Catholic years ago. These shared gatherings petered out several years ago, likely due to the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that both dioceses have been going through bankruptcy proceedings, she said. 

Now, the time seems right for the cultural-ministries departments of the Buffalo and Rochester dioceses to work together again, said Sister Fulton, who has been with the Buffalo Diocese for three years. Johnston, who formerly held other roles in the Rochester Diocese’s Department of Pastoral Services, became coordinator of life issues and cultural ministries in July. The women believe their respective departments can learn from each other and share best practices, Johnston said. 

“This is something that could be a strength for us. We can share stories,” Sister Fulton noted. 

In October, Johnston drove to Lackawanna for the Diocese of Buffalo’s annual Hispanic Heritage Mass, and several Black Catholics from the Rochester Diocese recently participated in a revival in the Buffalo area, said Sister Fulton, who has paid several visits to Rochester since the congress last summer.

Cultural ministers can help each other reach, engage with cultural communities 

During her Nov. 19 visit to Rochester, Sister Fulton spoke after Mass at Immaculate Conception/St. Bridget Parish during an event marking November’s Black Catholic History Month. She told parishioners what it was like growing up in a segregated small town in South Carolina in the 1960s, and how she eventually discerned her call to religious life. 

It’s important for people in the pews to hear this type of witness, especially from people who share their skin color or cultural heritage, Johnston said, noting that she and Sister Fulton can complement each other’s ministry. 

“Both Sister Fulton and I have something that the other needs,” Johnston explained. “Sister is a Black Catholic, and it helps with connecting with the Black Catholic community here and finding ways to serve better, and I’m Hispanic and would help her to connect with the Hispanic community because she is not.” 

During her Nov. 19 visit to Immaculate Conception/St. Bridget, Sister Fulton and fellow Buffalo Catholic Althea Porter also talked about the Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary, which is the oldest Black Catholic lay-led organization still in existence, according to its website, Decades ago, Buffalo and Rochester each hosted an active court of the organization, but both courts eventually disbanded. 

The organization’s namesake, St. Peter Claver, was a Spanish Jesuit missionary who ministered to slaves in the 1600s. 

A 35-year member of the organization, Sister Fulton recently sought and received permission from Buffalo’s Bishop Michael W. Fisher to reactivate the Buffalo court. She and Porter wanted to make the Rochester Diocese’s Black Catholics aware of the organization, which also has junior courts for children between the ages of 7 and 18.

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