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Leon Roberts


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On December 12, 1998, the Lord called your mother, Thelma Elizabeth Roberts to join Him. "Your job on earth has been completed" is what she heard. You were saddened by her loss yet overjoyed because you knew she was in a better place. On the evening of January 22, 1999, you too heard the same calling from above. As you lay resting, you said to the angels, "'Lead Me, Guide Me' to my mother." And so they did...

Leon began his piano studies at the age of six with a local teacher he knew as "Mr. Ben." His grandmother, Mrs. Mary Bookman, became a religious mentor in the musical growth of her grandson. Being from a family of devout Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals, he gained an integrated understanding of faith.

He first learned skills of directing congregational worship at his mother's church, the First Apostolic Fire Baptized Holiness Church of Coatesville. It was there that he also had a deep personal encounter with Jesus Christ. His talents and strong faith in God were reflected in the musical groups that he formed and directed such as the "Voices of Love" and the "Jubali Movement of Southern Pennsylvania."

Leon was equally talented during his years in the Coatesville Area School District as a member of the various choral groups such as the Meistersingers and the many theatrical and musical productions.

In 1968, Leon came to Washington, DC, to attend Howard University where he received a Bachelor's degree in Music Education. Later, he completed course work for the Liturgical Studies Certificate from Georgetown University. While at Howard University, he was a co-founder, pianist and composer for the 100-member Howard University Gospel Choir. Additionally, during this period, he directed the Mount Zion Baptist Church Young Adult Choir and the Library of Congress Gospel Choir.

The defining event of Leon's career and life came in April 1977 when he was invited to direct the struggling Gospel choir of Saints Paul and Augustine Catholic Church in Washington, DC. Embraced and mentored by the church community, he converted to Catholicism and made his life's work the integration of the energy and emotion of African-American Gospel music with the traditions and rituals of the Catholic liturgy.

From 1977 until 1994, he was the Director of Liturgical Music at the Saint Augustine Catholic Church and an instructor of choir and music appreciation at the Saint Augustine Elementary School. From 1978 until 1983, he directed the Mackin Catholic High School Choir and the Archdiocesan-wide Gospel Choir at Saint James Cathedral in Brooklyn, New York. In 1982, he founded and directed the Archdiocesan Mass Choir for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. He also was music director of the Bishop McNamara Senior High School Gospel Choir.

Leon was the co-founder and music chairperson of the REJOICE! Conference on Black Catholic Liturgy. In 1989, the REJOICE! Conference was held in Rome, Italy, and the Vatican where he spoke on "The Development of African-American Liturgical Music Since Vatican II."

He was an internationally recognized African-American composer, arranger, liturgist and recording artist. The following are among his works: "Mass of Saint Augustine," published by the Gregorian Institute of America and dedicated to his late sister, Claudette Shatteen; "I Call Upon You God!-The Mass of Saint Martin de Porres," published by Leon C. Roberts and Associates of which he was president; "He Has the Power" and "Deliver the Word," recorded by the Saint Augustine Gospel Choir; "God Has Done Marvelous Things," an artistic collaboration with David Haas and Roberts' Revival; "The Coming," recorded by Roberts' Revival and published by Oregon Catholic Press; and his most recent recording, "Come Bless the Lord," a live concert recording to be released in March 1999.

He was a major contributor to the first African-American Catholic hymnal, "Lead Me, Guide Me," which included twenty liturgical settings and was distributed nationally in 1987. In 1993, his psalm settings were published in the African-American hymnal of the Episcopal Church entitled "Lift Every Voice and Sing." And, he also worked with the late Sister Thea Bowman to produce her "Songs of My People" and "Round the Glory Manger."

Leon's liturgical music and seminars are famous around the world. He toured with various choirs throughout the United States, Italy, Japan and the Caribbean Islands. During his tour of Rome, Italy, he directed the Saint Augustine Choir at a special audience with Pope John Paul II. In 1990, his concert tour of Japan with Roberts' Revival received critical acclaim and resulted in appearances on ABC-TV, FOX-TV and a number of radio stations. On Christmas Eve 1991, he directed the Saint Augustine Gospel Choir in a special program on "The History of Gospel Music" on ABC's Nightline. From 1994 through 1996, he and Roberts' Revival performed annually in Hawaii at the BILAC, Big Island Liturgical and Arts Conference.

He was a clinician and lecturer for many organizations including the National Office of Black Catholics, the National Pastoral Musicians Conventions, the East Coast Conference for Religious Education, Notre Dame University, the Catholic University of America's Liturgical Studies program and many dioceses and archdioceses.

In 1994, Leon moved to Brooklyn, New York, to become the Florence Van Keuren Artist-in-Residence at the Concord Baptist Church of Christ. He served as the director for Concord's Gospel Chorus and the Male Chorus. He also was music director of the Union Theological Seminary Gospel Choir in Manhattan. In 1998, he was honored by the Office of Black Ministry of the Archdiocese of New York. During that ceremony at Saint Patrick's Cathedral, New York's Archbishop John Cardinal O'Connor presented him with the "Special Achievement Award" for his many contributions to Black Catholic worship and the development of liturgical music.

Then on Friday evening, January 22, 1999, at Providence Hospital, Leon left his earthly home to be with his heavenly Father, after being diagnosed with stomach cancer just two weeks earlier.

Leon is survived by his loving father, John Arthur Roberts, Sr., of Coatesville Pennsylvania; four brothers, John Clinton Roberts of Detroit, Michigan, John Arthur Roberts, Jr., of Midway, Georgia, Henry Roberts of Bronx, New York, and David Roberts of Petersburg, Virginia; one sister, Denise Lewis of Coatesville, Pennsylvania; many loving aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews and friends.

We have all been truly blessed by his marvelous musical and spiritual gifts.


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