By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published September 20, 2007
The chants start at 7 a.m. as Brother John Phillips and other robed Dominicans at the St. Albert the Great Priory begin their day.
Using the ancient prayers, Brother John joins the priests and his fellow novices in the chapel to praise God.
Hours later, the community sings compline, the church’s night prayer, to end the evening and walks out of the chapel in silence as the men conclude the day.
In between is time for personal prayer and studies.
It is a life that Brother John started on Aug. 19 when the Morehouse alumnus and former special assistant at the Atlanta Office for Black Catholic Ministry inked his name in the Book of Admissions, the official record kept by the centuries-old religious order.
“It was emotional and exciting. It was a beautiful experience to be clothed in the habit,” said Brother John, 28, speaking from the priory, about starting his year as a Dominican novice.
The distinctive habit gives Dominicans their nickname, Blackfriars. The name comes from the black cloak and hood worn over the white habit. A rosary is attached to their belts to acknowledge that a friar started the popular devotion still prayed today.
Brother John’s new home is the Dominican priory, located on the University of Dallas campus in Irving. He is one of the newest members of the Southern Dominican Province, known as the Province of St. Martin de Porres.
Friends from Atlanta and his family from Washington, D.C., watched the solemn ceremony as Brother John received the habit for the first time. His mother, Tenora, and sister Tenika attended the ceremony. From Atlanta were Father Ed Branch, the campus minister at the Atlanta University Center, Deacon Chester Griffin, of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, and Desmond Drummer, a “discernment brother.”
Drummer said it was moving to see the novices enter the chapel in white shirts and black pants and watch them put on each piece of the habit separately.
“It was only a beginning. It was very low-key. It wasn’t much of a celebration,” said Drummer, who has grown close to Brother John during the past two years.
The ceremony acts as a springboard for the new brothers to explore further to see if they are called to the life of the Dominicans, he said. Drummer, who is participating in the archdiocesan seminary program’s pastoral year, said watching his close friend affirmed his own decision to pursue a vocation as a priest in Atlanta.
And as Drummer watched Brother John interact with his new classmates and other Dominicans, he saw that Brother John had made a good decision.
“I could tell he was happy,” said Drummer.
People who know Brother John said he has a great affection to be of service to people.
“His fault is he can’t say no,” said Charles Prejean Sr., director of the Office for Black Catholic Ministry.
All at the same time Phillips juggled organizing a group of Catholics in the Atlanta Archdiocese to attend the National Black Catholic Congress, worked on the youth commission for the national event, and traveled with teenagers from St. Anthony of Padua Church to Jamaica for a week to work with young people with disabilities during the summer.
Prejean said Brother John’s attraction to religious life developed as he worked with the archdiocese.
“He seemed to be more and more excited about it. It kind of grew,” he said.
The Southern Dominican Province ranges from North Carolina to Texas. It is headquartered in New Orleans. There are some 160 professed friars in the province.
Brother John is one of five novices, the first stage in a journey to final vows for the Dominicans. He will be in Texas for at least a year to study the Dominican life, from its community life and opportunities of ministry to the history of the order.
The Dominicans, known officially as the Order of Preachers, began in the 13th century. Its founder was Dominic de Guzman, a Spaniard, who started the community of men in France. There are four pillars to Dominican life: prayer, community, ministry and study. A dictum that reflects its mission is “to share with others the fruits of our contemplation.”
Brother John entered the Southern Province because the region has impressed him since he moved to Atlanta for college to study English.
“I just love the South, the culture and all that it entails—the hospitality, the fight for civil rights, and the growth of Catholicism,” Brother John said.
He is among a diverse class of novices, which includes a Mexican-American and a Vietnamese-American.
“It’s a very good picture of the universal church,” Brother John said.