Black refugees created history St. Francis Xavier became first U.S. parish of African-Americans

October 04, 1995|By JOHN RIVERA | JOHN RIVERA,SUN STAFF

ON THE AFTERNOON of July 9, 1793, a group of 500 black Haitians fleeing revolution in their homeland were among a group of 1,500 who disembarked from the Guineaman after it docked in Fells Point.

The Catholic and French-speaking refugees sought out a group of priests, the Sulpicians, who had emigrated from France two years earlier to escape the French Revolution, and they formed a congregation that eventually became the first African-American parish in the United States.

That parish, St. Francis Xavier, now located at Oliver and Caroline streets in East Baltimore, is still going strong.

The congregation that began celebrating Mass in a lower chapel at St. Mary's Seminary on Paca Street would also produce the first order of African-American sisters, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, and the first African-American man to be educated and ordained a priest in the United States, the Rev. Charles Randolph Uncles.

In a time when other inner-city congregations are dwindling and parishes are being consolidated, St. Francis Xavier, with a membership of about 1,700 people, has remained vital. It counts former Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns and Councilman Carl Stokes among its parishioners. Bishop John Ricard, who is a Josephite, the religious congregation that has run the parish since 1871, lives in the rectory.

"I think a lot of our strength comes from the fact that we have a long history as a parish community," said the Rev. John L. M. Filippelli, the parish pastor. "But I remind the people, if we don't keep working, in a few years we may face restructuring ourselves."

The congregation officially became a parish in 1864, when it moved into a building at Calvert and Pleasant streets. In 1933, the parish moved to East Baltimore and took over its current building at Oliver and Caroline streets in 1968.

St. Francis Xavier spawned seven other parishes for African-Americans in Baltimore. St. Monica's and Sacred Heart have since closed; but still operating are St. Peter Claver in Sandtown-Winchester; St. Pius V in Harlem Park, which merged with St. Barnabas; St. Veronica in Cherry Hill and Christ the King in Dundalk. These were the only parishes blacks attended until the 1950s, when Baltimore's other Catholic churches began allowing African-Americans to attend services, said the Rev. Peter E. Hogan, the Josephite archivist.

Many of St. Francis Xavier's parishioners were born into the parish. Others were attracted by its mysterious rituals.

Raymond E. Thompson, 73, who was raised a Baptist, remembered being impressed as a boy by the processions in the neighborhood during May in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary that were led by a drum corps. "That was inspiring as far as I was concerned," he said.

Mr. Thompson, a longtime community activist, said he was also impressed by the social activism church members were involved in, especially their work with the youth and the poor. That outreach to the community, which Father Filippelli called "the Josephite tradition," continues today in the form of programs like Head Start and the Health Ministry.

Years later, Mr. Thompson became a member. "When I decided to become a churchgoer, I decided to become a member of the Catholic faith," he said.

Changes brought by the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, which allowed English to be used during the Mass in place of Latin and encouraged more cultural expression, brought changes to the liturgy that made it more distinctly African-American. In 1970, St. Francis Xavier started the first gospel choir in the archdiocese. Changes like these attracted new parishioners, such as Bernice Kearney, who joined the parish in 1969.

Mrs. Kearney was raised in a Pentecostal church but married a Catholic. "I used to go there with my boys when they were young, and I really didn't like it," she said. But she joined the gospel choir, started teaching Sunday school and now is the director of religious education for the parish.

The lively liturgies - the parish has five choirs - and its sense of history has made the church a magnet, drawing people each Sunday from as far as the Pennsylvania border.

"Most of our parishioners are from outside of the community. They travel quite a distance to go here," Mrs. Kearney said.

Even after Baltimore's parishes began integrating, black Catholics would continue to attend the historically black churches.

"A lot of them would go past three parishes to go to their home parish," Father Hogan said. "It was their blood, sweat and tears that built the places like St. Francis Xavier up. They weren't second-class citizens there. It was home."

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