HAMILTON: Mount Carmel RC Church & the Secret Society of Elders

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By: Ken Hamilton

I suppose that it all started back with a somewhat heated telephone conversation between my friend, Niagara County Legislator and former Chief of Inspections & Code Enforcement, the Mount Carmelite Dennis Virtuoso and me. 

When in his frustration of not being able to pigeonhole me into a definite political dogma, he then blurted out, “You know something Kenny! You’re nothing but an ultra-conservative liberal.” We then both paused for a few moments to digest his rather unconventional political diagnosis; and then, as if on cue, we both began to laugh – because he was the first person to exactly ID me as to what my political views really were and are. But I asked him in that conversation who’s responsible for the political organizing of the city’s African-American community. My hope was that he would have said that it was the responsibility of the then-highest ranking politically elected person in the county, his colleague the seemingly highly combative and often politically selfish Renae Kimble.

But Dennis didn’t say that. Instead, he said that it was the responsibility of the African-American pastors, stating that it was so because they were our leaders.  At that time there were nearly 40 of them.

It was true that black pastors, like ML King, Abernathy, Jackson and Sharpton had taken on the traditional mantel of being the spokespersons for the community; but that traditional role was back when blacks were largely denied an effective education. But Dennis’ belief didn’t stand muster because Kimble had a JD law degree from the University of Buffalo, which exceeded the education of any black pastor in the city, and the only political organization that she had was seemingly vested only in her own self-interests.  To be fair, Dennis was comparing his priests with our black pastors, all of which the former, he pointed out, had bachelors degrees, most with masters and even some who had doctorates, as Kimble had. But at that time, any if not most of the black pastors didn’t have a legitimate degree, and many of them never finished high school. I knew of both the former and the latter, and I therefore asked him why it was that his [Catholic] priests didn’t actively participate in politics, but most of the elected local government officials were Catholic. 


Mayoral Candidate Jeffrey Elder


Back to Dennis in a moment.

Several people have asked me about what they coin as a “Secret Society of Elders.”   Now, before your mind goes too far afield and think that the society is a Catholic organization, it is not – even though Niagara County Legislature reelection candidate Virtuoso, and all 3 of the major party candidates for Niagara Falls mayor — Republican Glenn Choolokian, Director of Community Development and Code Enforcement Seth Piccirillo, and the Board of Education member Robert Restaino — all attend the same Mount Carmel congregation. Their pastor, Father Klizek, has affirmed that he has no particular interest in politics, he’s only interest in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But I did look into the matter of the coined mostly black Society that apparently consist of mostly black pastors, along with non-pastoral names like retired city councilman Charles Walker, former Niagara Falls Housing Authority executive director Stephanie Cowart, and political operative Ronald Cunningham, whom I questioned a few weeks ago at the local Office Depot.

Cunningham had always been an easy read; nervously denying that such a group exists, but moments after his initial denial and quick walk away, he then spun on his heels and immediately returned to give me a statement that they were just a group of people who’d meet from time to time to discuss “… what we can do for the community.”  His veiled statement was like the cellophane wrapper on a package of cigarettes – protective of the product, but it didn’t hide the brand label or the Surgeon General’s Warning on the package’s side. It is also clear that from leaked reports the “group that meets to see what they can do for the community” fully supports the candidacy of Robert Restaino; but special note should be made that the society is not a part of the Niagara Ministerial Council, a group that Reverend Glenn Raybon, the deceased last Dean of Niagara Falls’ Black Pastors, said was started at the suggestion of deceased Mayor Michael O’Laughlin to reduce his interface with pastors seeking political favors from him. I have no idea with whom the mostly-black Ministerial Council will support, if anyone; but I am sure that after the primaries, both groups may want to interview someone not in that what might mistakenly be called the namesake Society of Elders, and that is the dark horse mayoral candidate USAF retiree, the African-American, Sergeant Jeffrey Elder.

And that takes us back to Dennis Virtuoso’s priest at  Mount Carmel and his priest’s colleagues. Would the African-American community be better off if our pastors were more like Catholic priests; whereas they all became highly educated, shy away from politics and have a prosperous church filled of educated members who are seeking to become elected government officials competing with each other to see which can do the best job for their community – errr, I mean, all of our communities?


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