Unsung Hero: Fr. Clarence Rivers

by Emily Strand

Black Catholic History Month is not just for Black Catholics. November is an opportunity for Catholics of any color to take a new perspective, to better appreciate the hardships and triumphs of their fellow members of the One Body. A new podcast, Meet Father Rivers, explores the life and complicated legacy of one Black Catholic in particular, Fr. Clarence Rivers. Podcast creator and co-host Emily Strand tells us more about Fr. Rivers and the podcast.

Fr. Clarence Rivers was the first African-American priest ordained to serve the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. In this sense alone, he was a pioneering figure in American Catholicism. Put yourself in the shoes of this young, diminutive, highly talented and optimistic Black man, fresh out of seminary, as he walks into his first parish assignment: St. Joseph, on the West end of Cincinnati, “a White parish in a Black neighborhood, where the school was already significantly Black.” The year is 1956, and young Fr. Rivers is the only Black priest the diocese has ever ordained and retained (one other had been sent to serve in majority-Black Trinidad). Imagine Fr. Rivers, vested and ready for his first Mass at St. Joseph, looking around at his White parishioners in a still-segregated city in the almost-South. Imagine the schoolchildren who had never seen a Black priest before; imagine the effect just his presence would have had on their imaginations of what was possible for themselves. (Episode 3 of the podcast features an interview with one such former student at St. Joseph, Dr. Jessie Thomas.) Even if Fr. Rivers had simply lived a quiet life as a hard-working, humble parish priest, he’d be noteworthy.

But Fr. Rivers did not stop there. Encouraged by his White pastor to inspire greater enthusiasm for Mass, Fr. Rivers began to teach. With his co-conspirators, the Oldenburg Fransiscan sisters, he taught the schoolchildren, and eventually the parish, to sing a Congolese Mass setting called the Missa Luba (a piece worthy of study in itself). And he taught the parish to pray with feeling, even in Latin. He did this half-vested, before Mass on Sundays. “No matter how long it took, I reasoned that the Mass could not proceed until the primary witness of the faith, the worshiping assembly, was ready to express that faith […] with a vitality that betokened a living faith.” Fr. Rivers cajoled, even teased his people into participating, playing upon their affection for him and their delight in their own successes. Remarkably, he did this years before the Second Vatican Council articulated the “something more required” by such pastors of souls. 

Rivers did not stop there either. To reach his congregation, he crashed through barriers that held the dominant White, Western European liturgical aesthetic firmly in place—an aesthetic Rivers would later argue essentially inhibits effective, dramatic worship with its mistrust of emotion and discursive, literal-mindedness. On one occasion, Rivers ignored a diocesan directive, targeted at him, to stop using “secular” instruments (percussion) in parish liturgies. He didn’t simply ignore the directive on Sundays, he flouted it during a celebration of Confirmation at St. Joseph by the Bishop who’d written it. By Rivers’ own account: “When the procession stepped into church, I unleashed the energy of the schoolchildren on the timpani; the congregation sang with all their hearts.” Fr. Rivers was never reprimanded for this disobedience. Why? His answer: “Because we had done it well.” Rivers knew exactly when and how to break the rules.

And Rivers did not stop—no, not even there. He accepted the challenge of liturgical scholar Fr. Boniface Luykx to compose music for liturgy out of his own background. His first attempt was a smash-hit: a simple melody with the solemnity of plainchant and the soul of a Spiritual: “God is love; and he who abides in love, abides in God, and God in him.” It was the first widely-sung piece of Catholic liturgical music composed in a folk idiom. And it was Black.

Rivers became a star of the new liturgy. The notoriety he gained for his local efforts, and internationally for his recording, An American Mass Program in 1963, made him a sought-after clinician and speaker in both Catholic and Protestant contexts. He pursued graduate study in drama, literature and liturgy in the U.S. and Paris, eventually earning a doctorate and authoring books, academic essays and more astounding music, all in support of what he called soulfull worship, which celebrated and incorporated Black aesthetics as a way of freeing the Spirit in worship. Thus Rivers became a foundational figure in the Black Catholic movement. Cardinal Wilton Gregory said in 1987, “Clarence Rivers is uniquely the Father of the Black Catholic Liturgical Movement. He more than anyone else took the first steps which brought Black American melody, rhythm, tempo, and style to music which was composed for Catholic Worship.” 

Rivers never stopped, even if, when I met him in 2002, he was living in a solitary state,  estranged from the Church. (He would not attend Mass because, he said, “I won’t be bored.” When I succeeded in convincing him to show up at St. Joseph’s one Sunday, the people gave him a standing ovation and paraded him to the front of the church. He hated it.) Rivers was, however, making plans to found an institute for pastoral liturgy—not for the academic study of liturgy, he was careful to note, but for the formation of practical liturgists, trained in the dramatic arts, who would learn to effect at any parish the soulfull, Spirit-freeing worship he had long advocated. Imagine if he had.

Rivers died suddenly on November 21, 2004, at age 74. As his name and contributions slip into the folds of history, sadly, so does his music—the crown of his legacy. Fr. Rivers is  literally an “unsung” hero; his music remains unpublished and thus unavailable for pastoral use. 

Can a podcast introducing American Catholics to Fr. Rivers all over again change that? Maybe, maybe not. At the least, Meet Father Rivers hopes to preserve something of this hidden figure’s fascinating legacy, sharing again the gift of Blackness he brought to the Church.

Stream or download episodes at meetfatherrivers.libsyn.com, on Apple Podcasts, or anywhere podcasts are found. New episodes appear at the end of every month.

Twitter: @RiversPodcast
Facebook: @MeetFatherRivers
Instagram: @riverspodcast

Be part of the show:
Meet Father Rivers invites anyone with a story to tell or a witness to share about Fr. Clarence Rivers’ influence on their ministry, music or spirituality to please contact the show by e-mailing: MeetFatherRivers@gmail.com. 

Emily Strand is author of Mass 101: Liturgy and Life and Your Baby’s Baptism (Liguori) and numerous articles on liturgy and literature. She has taught religion on the collegiate level for over 15 years and writes about liturgy, sacraments and the theology of popular entertainment on the blog LiturgyAndLife.com. Emily serves the National Association of Pastoral Musicians as Chair of the Forum on Communication, her diocese of Columbus, Ohio as a Master Catechist and her parish as a lector, cantor and ensemble director. She hosts the podcasts Potterversity and Meet Father Rivers. Learn more here.






2 responses to “Unsung Hero: Fr. Clarence Rivers”

  1. Matthew Nelson Avatar
    Matthew Nelson

    I’m really excited to sit down and give this podcast a good, uninterrupted listen without any distractions. Thanks for sharing Emily!

    1. Emily Strand Avatar

      Thank you, Matt! Please feel free to share your thoughts when you have. Thanks for the space here!

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