Lore Of Black Catholics Preserved By Josephites

JAQUES KELLY

April 16, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

A sign hangs deep in the basement of an old Calvert Street house: "Welcome to the Ivory Tower in the Cellar -- the Josephite Archives."

There, among the water pipes, the coal chutes, the laundry and several furnaces, is the country's most voluminous archive on African-American Roman Catholicism in the United States.

The diverse collection fills parts of three large houses in the Mount Vernon area of Baltimore. It includes the writings of Malcolm X and a description of the color of robes worn by altar boys at St. Francis Xavier Church in the 1870s.

The basement is dominated by the longtime keeper of the archives, the Rev. Peter E. Hogan, S.S.J., the Josephite priest who began collecting the archives in 1948.

"If there's an inch of space that comes available, I grab it," says Father Hogan, a rotund and bubbling cleric with an infectious laugh who delights in preserving old parish bulletins and scraps of information. He's a man who reads, clips and files 250 newspapers a week, but says he lost count of what is stored here sometime in the 1970s. But give him a little time and he can find it.

"We are not a public library but we are open by appointment. The more we share with others, the more we learn," says Father Hogan.

The archives' main purpose is to preserve the official records of St. Joseph's Society of the Sacred Heart, an order of priests founded in a suburb of London. The priests came to Baltimore in 1871 to staff African-American Catholic parishes and schools.

The Josephites established themselves as a separate American order in 1892-93 to concentrate on their work among blacks. They have made a substantial impact on Baltimore, and it is that story that is housed in these archives. Thousands of local families have attended their churches and schools.

The archives are filled with carefully ordered file drawers of parish annual reports and records.

Father Hogan pulls out a neatly transcribed diary of a priest who visited here in 1875. The work is filled with details and his private impressions of the city. Baltimore's largest black congregation was St. Francis Xavier Church, then at Calvert and Pleasant streets. A few white Irish sat in a small area by themselves, the diarist reported.

The altar boys wore purple robes and white cottas (short surplices). The congregation, described as very attentive to the formal Latin rites, was everything a city church should be. The church music was especially excellent, the man reported.

The diarist, Canon Peter L. Benoit, commented on telling aspects of life in Baltimore. The train that brought him here from ++ Philadelphia was much better than its English counterpart. The coaches were pulled "tram-style," perhaps a reference to train tracks in Fells Point and on Pratt Street.

When he took supper with an aristocratic Baltimore family, dinner was served in a room on the low-ceilinged ground floor, a practice the writer found curious. Seafood, of course, was the principal dish.

The Josephites spread out from Baltimore and established parishes and schools along the East Coast. They remain especially active in Louisiana and Texas but Baltimore is their home.

The order opened Epiphany Apostolic College in Walbrook as a school for blacks and whites in 1889. Their churches include St. Francis Xavier, St. Pius V, St. Peter Claver and St. Veronica's. Bishop John Ricard, the urban vicar of Baltimore, is a Josephite. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was married by a Josephite.

Father Hogan does not see his mission as merely collecting information about African-American Catholicism.

"The point is so that the Society has to make informed decisions about places," he says. "We have to have some knowledge of the places and conditions we might be called to serve. And you can't take information in a vacuum. You need to know all the incidentals to make a decision that isn't one-sided."

As a result, his domain includes numerous file cabinets on Martin Luther King, Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson and general black studies topics such as black power, the Black Panthers, the NAACP and the Urban League.

"If it's of Afro-American interest, I file it. I go from opera to rap," Father Hogan says.

That comment elicits groans from co-workers. Bernice Jones, the assistant archivist, has worked in the archives for 29 years. Mary Lipa is a 33-year veteran. Brother Clarence Langley, S.S.J., works alongside them as do Tracey Brown, Barbara Ross, Trace Woodson, Annie Thompson and Rosie Elvoid. The Rev. William McKenna, the Rev. Robert McCall and the Rev. Peter Kenney also work to keep the record straight, filed and organized.

Father Hogan began his studies with the Josephites in 1938. As a student at Catholic University in Washington, he took up archival studies in a program sponsored by the National Archives immediately after World War II. He's been collecting ever since, with occasional breaks for teaching assignments in this country and in Africa.

"And for all the reasons I've assembled all this material, there is one more, too. I'm nosy," says Father Hogan.

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