Several cried, others just nodded in acknowledgement. At a book signing on July 22 at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, author Mark Constantine read from his book to a crowd of 50 of the church’s parishioners. In it he highlights the work of a handful of church leaders, both Catholic and Protestant, in the South. One of those leaders, Father David McBriar, is not technically Southern. But he came, he stayed, and he has made an irrefutable difference.
It was enough of a difference that Constantine included McBriar, originally from New York, on the cover of his book titled Travelers on the Journey: Pastors Talk about their Lives and Commitments.
McBriar, 70, is retiring from the pastorate to Raleigh with more than 40 years as a Franciscan friar and nine years in Durham at Immaculate Conception.
But a decade of his work in the community will remain visible. “The reason for a church to exist is to help the community,” McBriar says. “I don’t think we are an island unto ourselves.”
When he arrived in Durham in 1996 after nine years at Raleigh’s St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, he wasted no time. The church is near downtown, near Duke University but also on the edge of Durham’s poor, drug-riddled West End community. He saw the emerging social concerns committee of his parish and focused it on housing, poverty and advocacy.
“It’s a question of addressing [the issues], not solving them,” he says.
Barbara Pegg, director of faith formation at Immaculate Conception, worked with McBriar throughout his time at the church. She is one of the many who is thankful for the influence of McBriar as well as the other two friars, who will stay at the parish. The new pastor, Father Don McLellan, who took over for McBriar on Aug. 1, is also a Franciscan.
Pegg explained the Franciscan philosophy as having three main tenets: They see the face of God in the poor, they reach out to those who are marginalized, and they foster a partnership with the laity.
“David McBriar walked alongside of us to see that the city’s needs were our needs, the city’s hurts were our hurts,” Pegg says. “He said, ‘Tell people who they are and they’ll know what to do.’”
Jacek Orzechowski, one of the remaining friars, has lived with McBriar in the friary on Vicars Avenue for three years. Not only will he be missed for his cooking in the house, but Orzechowski said McBriar leaves behind a “mark of infusing people with energy and spirituality that flows out into action–spirituality that makes a difference in the city of Durham and the world.”
A full 10 percent of the income of the church goes to the poor, and in 1996, when McBriar and the other friars saw that Durham’s growing Latino population was outgrowing Holy Cross Catholic Church, they engineered the transition between the church communities.
All three friars took it upon themselves to learn Spanish, and every weekend Immaculate Conception holds two masses in Spanish. An estimated 1,500 Spanish speakers attend each week, contrasted with the four weekly masses in English that gather around 2,500 people.
Pegg described the profound influence Latino parishioners have had on the church. One example is the feast of Guadalupe, every Dec. 12 at 3:30 a.m. during “las mañanitas,” or “the waking of the angels.” Up to 3,000 people spill out of the sanctuary, which normally holds 1,200 to 1,500.
Parishioner Maria Mangano has attended the church for 19 years and witnessed the growth of the Latino laity. She said McBriar made it as welcoming as possible for them and has continued to do so.
“As a socially conscious and politically active person myself, I don’t always agree with the church,” Mangano says. “It’s people like Father David who continue to make me proud to be a Catholic.”
McBriar grew up in New York City and holds a Ph.D. in the Phenomenology of Religion from McMaster University in Canada. He taught at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., and was later a dean at Denver’s Regis University before arriving in North Carolina as a pastor.
Perhaps it was that academic background that made him persistent in his encouragement of interfaith dialogue. Over the years, he has worked continuously alongside Rabbi John Friedman of Durham’s Judea Reform Congregation.
“He is an example of what every clergyperson should strive to be in the way he exemplifies the very highest values of the church,” Friedman says. McBriar has made Immaculate Conception even more socially conscious than it was before, he says. “Some churches have muddy windows–they don’t see out.”
Under McBriar, it seems that the windows have been crystal clear.
After 9/11, McBriar met with both the Muslim and Jewish communities of Durham, and when the Pope went to Israel, McBriar went to the synagogue to discuss historically poor Catholic-Jewish relations.
After Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was released, McBriar was prepared with sensitivity to a possible backlash from the Jewish community.
And to be completed next spring is the Emily Krzyzewski Family Life Center, a project spearheaded in part by McBriar. He realized the need in the neighborhood for a child-based community center, and approached Duke University’s Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who attends Immaculate Conception.
Named after the coach’s mother, the center is not exclusively church-affiliated, but will be available for all people in the neighborhood, McBriar says.
He gave his final sermons as pastor at Immaculate Conception on July 30 and 31. He’s known for sermons that are concise and hard-hitting, illuminating the Gospel and applying it directly to the parishioners’ lives.
“It makes us feel uncomfortable–and that’s good,” said Joyce Milko, the church’s director of stewardship.
McBriar knows that there is much to be done. But he said it’s time for younger people to take his cue to work for the issues he says are most pressing to the city of Durham–housing and poverty.
“We are building an underclass of people,” he says. “The dignity of the human person is being compromised.”
But sitting in front of the admiring crowd at the book signing, McBriar had faith that the city and the church will move forward as they have before.
“You take a huge problem and with a hem of self-sacrifice you move it and change it,” he says.