'Authentically black and Catholic' 3 men ordained into order serving African-Americans

May 16, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

Once he knew he wanted to become a Catholic priest, it wa easy enough for Henry J. Davis to decide upon the order he would join. The Josephites, of course.

Reared in a Josephite parish, he has fond memories of the priests who served the family church in Louisiana, where the Society of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart has established its biggest following in America.

He knew it was the Josephite missionaries who had set themselves the task of ministering to some 4 million freed black slaves only a few years after the Civil War ended. He knew he wanted to be part of that history.

So it was fitting that Henry J. Davis would be ordained the Rev. Davis in the spring of 1993, exactly 100 years after the Josephites broke free of their British roots and established an order in the United States -- in Baltimore to be exact.

Yesterday, before some 600 people at the Basilica of the Assumption on Cathedral Street, Henry Davis, Anthony Okey Nwachukwu-Udaku and Michael K. Saah-Buckman knelt before the Archbishop of Baltimore, William H. Keeler, and were welcomed into the order.

"It's a blessing, that's all I can say," said Father Davis, 26, when he was asked about the significance of ordination on the 100th birthday of the American Josephite order. The New Orleans native said one of his goals is to "show our people we do have a place in the Catholic Church. We can be authentically black and Catholic."

Of some 55 million American Catholics, about 2 million are black. The Josephite Society -- still based in Baltimore -- ranks among the smaller Catholic orders, with some 170 clergymen serving congregations along the East Coast, the South and in Texas. The largest Josephite community is in Louisiana.

Father Nwachukwu-Udaku, 31, who is from Nigeria, said he decided to apply for candidacy in the Josephite priesthood after seeing an advertisement the order placed in a Catholic newspaper. All he knew about the order was that it is devoted to work in black parishes.

"African-Americans do not have enough priests to minister to them," he said. As for his ordination on the American order's centennial, he said, "The first 100 years, they have done so well. That should be a hope for us who are going to minister to the African-American community the next 100 years."

Father Saah-Buckman, 37, who moved to this country from central Ghana, said: "My goal is just to be able to help people appreciate their identity -- how I can be an African-American and a Catholic."

All three men were graduated last Friday with Master's of Divinity degrees from the DeSales School of Theology in Washington. They were to spend their morning today celebrating Sunday Mass in three of the Josephite churches in Washington, and they expect to spend the summer awaiting their parish assignments.

They have joined an order established in London, England, in 1866 by the Rev. Herbert Vaughan, who later became Archbishop of Westminster. In 1871, Father Vaughan asked Pope Pius IX for a mission for his new society. The pope, in response to an appeal heard during the second Plenary Council in Baltimore in 1866, suggested that Josephites be sent to the United States to minister to newly freed black Americans.

The first four Josephite priests arrived in Baltimore in 1871, followed by more missionaries in the next two decades. But the experience convinced the church that the missionary work would be more effective with an American clergy.

In April 1893, by mutual consent of Archbishop Vaughan and Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, an order was established in the United States. The Josephites were elevated to the status of a Pontifical Society in 1932.

After the two-hour ordination downtown yesterday, the three new priests, celebrants and guests drove to a reception at St. Peter Claver in West Baltimore, established in 1888 as the second Josephite church in the city. The first, St. Francis Xavier, was established in 1871.

It was a return visit to the West Baltimore neighborhood for Father Davis, who worked at the Tuerk House drug treatment center in the summer of 1991.

The order established to win converts among newly freed slaves now spends much of its energy ministering to victims of inner city violence, drugs and poverty.

The experience at Tuerk House "was very worthwhile, almost like working in a hospital," said Father Davis.

"I just hope those young guys see the same vision I did," said the Rev. Robert Kearns, pastor of St. Peter Claver, a parish of about 850 families. "That the church is only as strong as the neighborhood. If we don't serve all the people, we'll be a club, not a church."

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