The 'unofficial' official Father
For more than 20 years, Emily Strand ’04 has lived and breathed a passion project she first discovered as a graduate student at the University of Dayton. While getting her master’s degree in theological studies in the early 2000s, she met Father Clarence Rivers, a man who would consume her studies and her life.
“I'm not done trying to try to bring his story out into wider Catholic culture and help people, especially white people, understand his contributions” said Strand, who is white.
In honor of Black Catholic History Month, Strand officially released a new podcast, Meet Father Rivers, in which she explores more about the man she did her thesis on in 2004.
Father Rivers (1931-2004) was the first Black man ordained to serve the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Ordained to the priesthood in 1956 by Archbishop Karl J. Alter, he began working for St. Joseph Church, a historically Black parish in Cincinnati’s West End neighborhood.
“His pastor said to him, ‘I really want people to be more excited about coming to Mass, so could you do something about that?’ And he already had an interest in the liturgy, so he turned to music,” Strand said.
Rivers began introducing music to his congregation that had roots in Africa, and included African drum beats and rhythms of Negro spirituals. This eventually led him to write his most beloved hymn, "God is Love," based on the Scripture, “God is love; whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in him.”
“He teaches this to his congregation and the congregation goes wild. He records it … and publishes it with World Library. It starts to sell, and eventually it starts to sweep the nation,” Strand said.
Though "God is Love" did gain popularity in the early 1960s, the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Strand said that in American Catholicism, Rivers is a relatively unknown liturgist, composer and scholar. But, she said, he had a profound impact on not only the people of his parish, but also on how modern Catholic worship looks and sounds today. Strand said he is, unfortunately, mostly unknown, and she is unsure why that is.
“He really ought to be the official father of this movement, this style of music,” Strand said. “The vast majority of music that came after [Rivers] was written by white composers, and what we don't understand is that the first person to do this was a Black man.”
“He really ought to be the official father of this movement, this style of music.”
Strand hopes sharing Rivers’ story through the podcast will help bring more attention to Rivers’ work, especially to Catholics today.
“I don't care what color you are. I would love for more Catholics in general to understand the root of all this music we do now, and to appreciate the full context of who [Rivers] was — not just this entertaining Black man who got up and sang this pretty song, but rather somebody who was a racial justice advocate and somebody who challenged the Church to be more inclusive.”
For more episodes of Meet Father Rivers, visit meetfatherrivers.libsyn.com. It is also available on Apple Podcasts or anywhere podcasts are found. New episodes are available every month.