Josephites mark 125 years Service: The order of Catholic priests has staffed African-American parishes in Baltimore and other cities for over a century.

November 30, 1996|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

When Carl Stokes won a partial scholarship to Loyola High School in the 1960s, there was no way his family could make up the difference.

Not to fear: His parish priest, a Josephite at St. Francis Xavier in East Baltimore, made sure all expenses were covered.

"If you had the ability, they would make sure that you got all the tools and the educational opportunities to go to the next level," said Stokes, 46, a former Baltimore City councilman and lifetime member of St. Francis.

Stokes' story is one of many that will be shared as the Josephites celebrate their 125th anniversary today, with Cardinal William H. Keeler presiding at a 5 p.m. Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church, 1501 E. Oliver St., the country's oldest African-American Roman Catholic parish. A reception and banquet will follow at the Baltimore Convention Center.

The events mark the 1871 founding of St. Joseph's Society of the Sacred Heart in London, which sent white priests to Baltimore that same year to staff African-American Catholic parishes and schools. They assumed control of St. Francis Xavier and in 1892 became a separate American order to concentrate on their work among blacks, many of them freed slaves.

St. Francis Xavier spawned seven other parishes for African-Americans in Baltimore. St. Monica's and Sacred Heart are defunct, but still operating are St. Peter Claver in Sandtown-Winchester; St. Pius V in Harlem Park, which merged with St. Barnabas; and St. Veronica's in Cherry Hill. Christ the King in Dundalk was turned over to the archdiocese.

These were the only parishes blacks attended until the 1950s, when they felt accepted at Baltimore's other Catholic churches, said the Rev. Peter E. Hogan, the Josephite archivist.

Though in decline in recent years, the order has continued to play a significant role in education, housing, the rehabilitation of drug addicts and alcoholics and other pursuits, say local religious and civic leaders.

"Black Catholics have always seen the Josephites as somebody who could go to the pope and the bishops for us," said Sister Claudina Sanz, superior general of the 168-year-old Oblate Sisters, a group of African American nuns founded here.

The Rev. Robert M. Kearns, the superior general of the Josephites, led the effort to raise money to build new and renovated homes under the Nehemiah project. His appeal to a variety of religious groups -- synagogues and black and white Protestant churches -- netted $2.2 million in pledges that leveraged millions more in federal, state and city dollars.

The groups promised to "rise up and build" -- as the Old Testament prophet Nehemiah had urged -- in the impoverished neighborhoods of Sandtown-Winchester and Penn North in West Baltimore. With the Enterprise Foundation as the developer, 300 houses have been built, 150 are to be built and 150 are to be renovated, Kearns said.

"The Josephites are to be commended for the leadership they've shown in their outreach to the oppressed in the city, especially through the Nehemiah project," said the Rev. Douglas Miles of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, the church-based community group that initially lobbied the religious community for money for the project in 1986.

The Josephites sponsor the largest Head Start program in Maryland, with nearly 300 preschoolers at St. Veronica's.

A Josephite, Bishop John H. Ricard, oversees parishes serving 85,000 Catholics in Baltimore and is head of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, the world's second-largest nonprofit provider of foreign aid.

Another Josephite, the Rev. Joseph Verrette, runs the state-funded Tuerk House in West Baltimore, a 28-day inpatient drug and alcohol treatment program for people with no health insurance.

But the shortage of priests has caused the order to curtail its projects. "We've pulled out of 26 parishes over the past 20 vTC years" in the United States and the Bahamas, said the Rev. Eugene McManus, former Josephite superior general.

However, there are several new black priests, and they're working closely with an order of priests from Nigeria, which is sending missionaries to this country for long stints. Several Josephite parishes in Baltimore remain "vibrant," said McManus.

St. Francis Xavier and St. Peter Claver have 800 registered families each, church officials say. Some St. Francis members travel from Washington and Pennsylvania to attend one of the three Sunday Masses, said the Rev. William Norvel, pastor at St. Francis Xavier.

"When I go there, I'm surrounded by people I've known since I was 5 years old," said Stokes.

State Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr. also credits the Josephites with helping to open the door to educational opportunities.

In 1960, Montague became the first African-American to attend Loyola High School. As a student at St. Peter Claver Elementary, he said, "One day they just came to me and said 'take this test and if you pass, you'll go to Loyola.'

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