Baltimore says goodbye to 'guiding light' Bishop Ricard lauded before move to Fla.

March 10, 1997|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

For an hour yesterday, the oldest Catholic church in the nation was host to a service rich in diversity and spirit that honored departing Bishop John H. Ricard, who spent the past 12 years in Baltimore as adviser to religious and political leaders and an advocate for the poor and forgotten.

A gospel choir clapped and swayed in the Basilica of the Assumption, a Muslim cleric spoke and the bishop quoted a passage from the Torah. Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke lauded Ricard as "one of the greatest ecumenical leaders to have ever graced our city."

The farewell service for Ricard, who is leaving to become bishop of Pensacola, Fla., had its humorous moments, too, such as when Ricard rose to speak after 45 minutes of accolades and said, "And now, for the rebuttal."

At the conclusion, Ricard stood outside in the brisk wind shaking hands and kissing and hugging old friends for about a half hour as the 1,000 or so in attendance filed out. Many people stopped to record the moment on film or videotape.

"He's been our guiding light for every problem you have, he has several solutions for you to try," said Rebecca Carroll, 78, a former deputy city schools superintendent and lifetime member of St. Pius V Church in West Baltimore.

Since arriving in Baltimore from Washington, Ricard, 57, has been closely linked with the poor. He chose to live in the East Baltimore rectory of St. Francis Xavier Church, seeing the degradation caused or exacerbated by poverty daily.

The poor around the world became a key concern to him, too, after he became president of the Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, the world's second-largest nonprofit provider of foreign aid. His term in that position expires in December 1998.

He oversaw the restructuring and renaissance of the city's Catholic churches and Southeast Baltimore schools hit with declining population and a shortage of resources.

Yesterday, many people praised the first African-American bishop in the Baltimore Archdiocese for using the resources of his office to help the city's shrinking parishes and to raise the profile of black Catholics.

Several people noted that Ricard has led the campaign to establish the Mother of Africa Chapel at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. The chapel will be dedicated in August.

"We're losing a powerful black symbol in Baltimore, but we have to take what he's instilled in us and use it to become better Catholics, better people," said Walton Smith, a member of St. Francis Xavier.

Smith was one of about 12 members of the Knights of St. Peter Claver who were dressed in plumed hats and black capes lined with gold satin and embossed with insignia and accompanied by their women's auxiliary, which was resplendent in white.

"We're going to miss him so much it's hard to describe how much he has meant to us as an adviser, counselor," said a tearful Sylvia Hardison, youth choir director at St. Francis Xavier.

"This is a sad occasion but what Bishop Ricard did" to further the dialogue between Catholics and Muslims will continue, said Earl El-Amin, a local representative of Wallace D. Mohammed, leader of the Muslim American Community.

During brief remarks near the end of the service, Ricard personally thanked many people for aiding him in his role as urban vicar and said: "What must not be overlooked is the strength of our parishes in the city."

Cardinal William H. Keeler thanked Ricard for making the church responsive to the shrinking urban congregations: "Keep praying for us that we will continue going in that direction."

In an interview after the service, Keeler said there's no timetable for naming a successor to Ricard and that one will be named, though the urban vicariate has lost population.

Yesterday marked the official end of several days of parties or services where the bishop had been honored for his work in Baltimore.

Ricard is to leave for Pensacola today, driving the roughly 1,000 miles in his compact Nissan automobile.

"He certainly doesn't have to drive himself down there," said Bill Blaul, spokesman for the archdiocese.

"But it says something about the guy, that he's packing his car and driving to Florida."

Pub Date: 3/10/97

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