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Praises for Catholic deacon's pioneering work in African-American community

ST. PETERSBURG — Lionel Roberts moved to St. Petersburg more than 30 years ago bringing the life experience of a northern transplant and a Caribbean immigrant.

Before long, he was immersed in church and community life and organizing everything from a tennis academy for inner city youth to a Tampa Bay West Indian Association.

Admirers point to the role he played in founding the James B. Sanderlin Neighborhood Family Center in the city's Midtown, the reopening of a closed school to serve teenage mothers, and his efforts to increase black membership and participation in the local Roman Catholic Diocese.

"I just continue to be amazed by all the things he has done. He has never said someone else needs to do something and never did it for himself, but always did it for justice," said Bernadette "Bernie" Young, a parishioner at Blessed Trinity Catholic Church, where Roberts is a deacon.

As Roberts nears his 90th birthday, Young and others have decided to recognize his contributions. A dinner Saturday at the St. Petersburg Country Club is expected to draw community leaders such as Mayor Rick Kriseman and Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

The former Benedictine monk said the plans were a surprise. "As the scriptures would say, you do everything not expecting a reward," he said.

Effie Alexander, who worked with Roberts to make the dream of a community center in the African-American community a reality, is an organizer of this weekend's celebration.

"I feel like we've almost let the window close for the people who knew him best," said Alexander, an officer of the new African American Historical Society of St. Petersburg.

"I asked the group if our first activity couldn't be a testimonial dinner for Lionel," she said, adding that the community owed him "a debt of gratitude."

Alexander said Roberts not only played a key role in founding the Sanderlin Center, he also helped get its property at 2335 22nd Ave. S, which was donated by the Catholic Diocese. A condition of the gift was that it continue to be used to provide services for the neighborhood, Frank Murphy, the diocese's secretary of administration, said.

Saying he couldn't have done it by himself, Roberts credited others, including the late Doug Jamerson, the first African-American elected to the state legislature from Pinellas County and a former commissioner of education. Roberts also established the Mother and Child Center, which opened in 1986 for pregnant teenagers and their children.

Both projects were undertaken while he served as the diocese's first director of its office of Black Catholics. Roberts said he didn't immediately understand the need for the special ministry. His Caribbean upbringing had not exposed him to the effects of segregation. While his new responsibility covered the entire diocese, which spans Pinellas, Hillsborough, Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties, Roberts concentrated on two predominantly African-American parishes — St. Peter Claver in Tampa and St. Joseph's in St. Petersburg. His efforts included establishing a diocesan gospel choir, now based at St. Joseph's, and encouraging black priests to come to the diocese.

Roberts, who was born in Trinidad and grew up in Guyana, said his faith and determination are rooted in early experiences. He immigrated to America in 1969, worked as a pharmaceutical sales representative in New York and became active in his Brooklyn parish, where he was ordained a deacon. In 1984, he moved to St. Petersburg.

He was just 11 when his mother — a devout Catholic — died in childbirth in Guyana. His father, who didn't have enough money to return to Trinidad with all of his children, left Lionel and a brother behind and promised to return in six weeks.

"He never came back," Roberts said.

Determined to be reunited with his father, Roberts said he enlisted in the British Army's World War II effort in Guyana at just 16. He eventually got to Trinidad through a military exchange program and found both his father and his mother's extended family.

He joined a monastery in Trinidad, but sought dispensation from his vows after 14 years. He had met Merlene. They have been married for almost 53 years, have two sons, both engineers, and six grandchildren.

Merlene Roberts said she is "very proud" of her husband and pleased that he is being honored.

At Blessed Trinity, the Rev. Wayne Genereux praised the longtime deacon. "He has been able to bring very positive change in the lives he has been involved in," he said.

"At the end of it, I am only doing my duty," Roberts said. "I enjoy it, because you become part of where you're living."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes

* Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. The Rev. Wayne C. Genereux, pastor of Blessed Trinity, was misidentified in a photo caption.

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