Missionary Finds a Graying Flock

Home Brooklyn Life Missionary Finds a Graying Flock

By Lillian Rizzo

Father Kenan Peters, a missionary, gave special masses at 7:30 p.m. every day last week at Our Lady of Grace. (The Brooklyn Ink/Lillian Rizzo)
Father Kenan Peters, a missionary, gave special masses at 7:30 p.m. every day last week at Our Lady of Grace. (The Brooklyn Ink/Lillian Rizzo)

At the age of 79, Kenan Peters is a missionary from a Passionist monastery in Jamaica, Queens. He visited the church at 430 Avenue W to give a series of talks on becoming a more dedicated Catholic and creating a better life.

But at each of Peters’ masses fewer than 100 people came to hear him. Their hair was gray. They used walkers. They gripped the wooden pews in front of them with aging, wrinkled fingers. Only a few middle-aged churchgoers speckled the crowd, whether at the morning mass at 8:45 or the evening mass at 7:30.

Change was the theme of Peters’ talks, change toward family, friends and commitment to the Church. He spoke with passion, sometimes slamming a fist on the pulpit or raising his voice at key points. But his audience was comprised overwhelmingly with people who had already lived long lives, built around their families, and faith.

“Sometimes when you’re a grandparent or parent you want to tell your children about this,” said Peters, trying to make sense of how an older crowd might receive his words. He wished he saw some younger faces in the audience. But it hasn’t been that way in a long time.

“The last two generations,” he said, “are losing younger people and their children don’t come.” Many young people, he continued, attend his missions when they’ve hit a low point in their lives.

Peters was invited to Our Lady of Grace by the church’s pastor, Father Thomas Leach, in honor of the Church’s 75th anniversary. During his morning masses, Leach sat behind Peters in still silence, hanging on his every word. At night he could be found at the back of the church, greeting his parishioners, and listening.

But the invitation was not merely a celebratory act. Leach explained that he was to “invite uncommitted Catholics back to the community.”

Aging congregations, Peters said, are not only found in Brooklyn. His best receptions, he said, were always in Florida, where congregations of the elderly are common. One of his missions drew 1,200 people in a single week. He spent five hours a day hearing confessions.

Peters, who grew up in Queens, was not surprised by who came to hear him at Our Lady of Grace. It has been this way for a while, he said, and doesn’t necessarily expect anything different.

Leach, who was especially excited about Peters’ arrival, said he remembered being a young boy in Brooklyn in the 1960s when a missionary would come to his parish, St. Brendan’s on Coney Island Avenue. He recalled going to those masses with his father and how the church would be packed. Now he worries if there will be any sort of turnout for the ones he himself leads.

But Peters is not discouraged. He has been giving missions for 31 years, having traveled all throughout those years, giving missions across the country and Europe.

He reminisced about how, as a young man, he once gave 16 missions in a single year, his personal record. Now he averages about eight a year, mostly in the metropolitan area. He had thought that the missions would end when he turned 75. God, he said, will let him know when to stop.

“There is nothing as a priest you would rather be doing than a mission,” he said, confident he was reaching people at Our Lady of Grace. 

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