By PAUL A. BARRA
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Last year, Shimica D. Gaskins was the only Catholic in her senior class at Lake City High School. Today she rides an academic scholarship at the Catholic University of America. She is not the only Catholic in her class.
In fact, the faith she strengthened among the Baptists and other Congregationalists in the Pee Dee tobacco country has never required less effort to sustain. St. Philip, the Apostle, her home parish in Lake City has no resident priest, and Masses are celebrated on Sunday and on every other Saturday and not at all during the week. Now she goes to Mass any day she wants to; her weekday favorite is the 8:30 a.m. before her first class.
“It’s so easy to be a good Catholic here,” Gaskins said. “It was culture shock, but I’m enjoying it.”
Her dorm is a short walk from the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in the United States. She can go to the Crypt Church in the lower level of the basilica, where the scheduling makes it possible to fit in the liturgy around classes at CUA. Weekend masses in the main church upstairs can accommodate 6,000 worshipers in the pews. On the other end of the size spectrum, the philosophy major has a favorite chapel to visit, the Our Mother of Africa Chapel.
Shimica Gaskins was present when the chapel was installed, the last one added to the National Shrine. That was in August 1998. She came on a pilgrimage offered by the brand new Office of Black Catholic Ministries of the Diocese of Charleston.
“It has meaning for me. I go to it a lot. Jesus’ hands are stretching out, bringing African-Americans into the faith,” she said.
The Christ child’s hand reaches out for the people in a narrative relief sculpture that depicts the span of the African-American experience; a row of people, starting with slave traders raiding a village in Africa, ends in dramatic fashion with a couple of modern black Americans stepping out of the sculpture towards the hand of Jesus.
The Our Mother of Africa Chapel is called “a celebration of love and freedom expressed in art and architecture” in the literature of the basilica. Three main pieces — a madonna and child, a crucifix and the narrative relief — form a sacra conversazione, and visitors are invited to participate in this sacred conversation when they pause at the popular chapel. The idea of separate sacred people in a single scene, instead of in separate compartments, originated in the early 15th century. It works beautifully nearly 600 years later in the Mother of Africa shrine.
A visitor enters the chapel by stepping across a boat done in bronze in the floor of the portico — it represents a typical slave ship of the 1800s as it sailed the two to three month trip known as the Middle Passage with a cargo of 200 slaves crammed into its holds — and faces a startling crucifix. The corpus was carved by Juvenal Kaliki of Tanzania in tribal style, angular, almost geometric. The carving is done in ebony, a black hardwood native to Africa. The cross was carved from cherry by Jeffrey Brosk of New York, and it follows the natural curves of the tree it came from, complementing the brilliant black body of Christ.
To the left is a realistic bronze madonna and child done larger than life. It was created by Denver’s Ed Dwight and faces his other major piece in the chapel, the narrative relief. A stylized dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, hovers above the line of people in the relief panel.
The Our Mother of Africa Chapel is impressive, although it’s not large. It is new, and it tells a story in art. According to Gaskins, it is a favorite stop on tours of the huge basilica and shrine.
Shimica Gaskins intends to go on to law school after her undergraduate work at Catholic University. Wherever she ends up, she’s not likely to have ready access to any sacred place as meaningful to her as Our Mother of Africa Chapel.