Bishop John H. Ricard, who led the city's Catholic parishes for the past 13 years, is leaving to take over the diocese in Pensacola, Fla., a move that many in Baltimore say takes away a leading champion of racial harmony and justice for the poor.
"This is terrible news," said Rosann Catalano, Roman Catholic theologian at the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore. "He will be an enormous loss for the church of Baltimore. His leadership and his commitment to the city and to justice for all in the city has been exemplary."
Ricard, 56, a no-nonsense man who is known to listen more than he talks, was the first African-American bishop in the Baltimore Archdiocese. He established the National Black Catholic Congress to identify and address concerns unique to black Catholics. He has also been an active liaison to the growing Hispanic community across Maryland, and attends without fail the monthly meetings of the Archdiocesan Hispanic Council.
Last year, Ricard was named president of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the world's second-largest nonprofit provider of foreign aid.
"He is a rising star," said Sister Mary Neil of the Archdiocesan Hispanic Pastoral Council. "I am going to miss him terribly. But I'm glad God let us have him for as long as he could."
In Baltimore, Ricard is one of three auxiliary bishops who serve under Cardinal William H. Keeler. As vicar of Baltimore, Ricard oversees parishes serving 85,000 Catholics. Ricard's assignment as bishop of Pensacola makes him one of five African-American bishops to control an American diocese, and it is seen as an important step forward for black Catholics across the country.
However, according to dozens of others interviewed yesterday, the characteristic that most distinguishes Ricard is that no matter how high he moves within the church hierarchy, he never loses sight of the needs of its people.
A resident at St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church, he often answers telephone calls or responds to knocks on the door from parishioners who need a prayer, a job or a meal. He makes visits to sick people in their homes or hospital rooms and attends numerous community meetings.
News of Ricard's departure from Baltimore, set for March, moved many members of St. Francis Xavier to tears.
"He lives at St. Francis, and it's like he's a member of our family," said Harriet Brown, a lay minister at the East Baltimore parish. "Though he's a bishop, he's always on the level of the people; he didn't act like he was above us. He went beyond his duty as a bishop to help people."
Ricard is a member of the Society for St. Joseph, an order devoted to service of African-American communities. The Rev. Donald M. Fest, another Josephite who serves as pastor at St. Veronica's in Cherry Hill, said Ricard takes very seriously his responsibilities to be an advocate for blacks. Later this year, he is scheduled to dedicate the Mother of Africa Shrine, a chapel at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. He began raising money to create it a few years ago.
And, Fest said, Ricard has worked to empower and inspire pride in minority communities around the state.
"We are all a part of the body of Christ," Fest said. "The bishop is committed to serving all people, not just those in a certain class and race. He had worked very hard to keep this city together as one working unit -- black and white."
Juan D. Lopez, an environmental engineer who lives in Bel Air, said that Ricard helped his parish win permission two years ago to hold Masses in Spanish. And then, Lopez said, Ricard celebrated several of the first Spanish Masses.
"Hispanics had always been seen as an invisible community," Lopez said. "But because of his presence, he has given us a voice. He has made our concerns known to the archdiocese. When he leaves, we will lose an important source of support."
At a news conference in the Omni Hotel yesterday, Ricard formally announced his new assignment via satellite link from Pensacola. He said he was "very excited" about the challenges of the new job, which include overseeing 100,000 Catholics in Florida's panhandle.
He will continue as CRS' president and chairman through his term, which expires Dec. 31, 1998.
At yesterday's news conference, Ricard acknowledged the close ties he has with the black community and said he hoped his successor would be African-American.
"I do feel it would bring much to have another African-American like myself in a position like this. There are so many potential areas of conflict and misunderstandings. Having someone there who can identify with people who feel alienated from society" is important, he said.
When asked if Ricard's successor would be black, Keeler said: "I feel I should pay close attention to whatever Bishop Ricard suggests."