Like most major U.S. cities, Baltimore has a shortage of black Roman Catholic priests.
A group of Baltimoreans, led by local Josephite priests, left for Nigeria, West Africa, yesterday for the opening Saturday of a seminary that's expected to provide a pool of priests to serve the growing black Catholic population in the United States.
"There is a lack of black priests," the Rev. Robert Kearns, superior general of the Josephite community, said yesterday in a telephone interview.
"There are not enough African-American priests. There's a need for more and more. These priests will be able to stimulate vocation awareness among young African-American men."
The Rev. Peter E. Hogan, archivist for the Society of St. Joseph, which caters specifically to people of African descent, said the seminary is being formed by Americans "distinctly for recruiting Nigerian students to come to the United States and work in the mission in the United States."
"They will be incorporated into the Josephite seminary in the United States," he said.
The Josephite order, founded as a world mission in England in the 1860s, came to Baltimore in 1871 and began to focus on blacks enduring social struggles after slavery. It has seminaries and related offices in New Orleans, Washington and Mobile, Ala., where Nigerians will go for more formal training after studies at the St. Joseph the Worker Formation House seminary, in Ipeiu-Remo, Agun.
Hogan said about 300 priests of African descent serve what Kearns estimated are 3 million to 4 million black Catholics in the United States.
"There is growth, but much of the growth is taking place because of immigration of people coming from the Caribbean or people coming from Africa and Latin America, like Brazil," he said. "Much of the growth is external."
By contrast, Kearns said, the Catholic Church is "growing by leaps and bounds" in Africa, where an estimated 100 million people are Roman Catholic. Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, has an estimated 100 million people, about 20 percent to 25 percent of whom are Catholic, Kearns said.
He noted many reasons why the United States and Europe struggle to find priests, including the dwindling size of Catholic families.
"I think there is the whole question of the many, many options in society for young people to take today," he said.
"Early on in life, they'll make decisions that kind of hold them away from thinking of a life of sacrifice. People get caught up in a lifestyle early on that tends to be world-oriented. Also, there's a cultural phenomenon today where people are reluctant to make permanent commitments."
Kearns, 63, a Boston native, has been a priest for 37 years -- ordained a year before the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
His nonviolent choice wasn't a popular one among African-Americans then and, for the most part, it still isn't.
"We've had such a shortage in this country, and I think the priests that are now coming from Nigeria are able to relate to our children and young men and women who will become religious leaders and priests," Augustine Stith, 57, a member of St. Francis Xavier Church in Northeast Baltimore, one of Baltimore's oldest black Catholic churches, said yesterday.
Her husband, Archer Stith, also a St. Francis member, said collaborations like the one between the Josephites and Nigerians "will go a long way to establish badly needed role models, especially among African-Americans."
"We're not very spiritual these days, and that's something I fear we're losing in our heritage," he said.
The Stiths, who live near Pikesville, are clinical social workers in private practice who made the trip to Africa to support the effort.
So did Sister Marianna Halsmer, 80, sister of social service, and associate pastor of St. Francis Xavier.
"I think it's a blessing from the Lord," Halsmer said yesterday before boarding her plane. "It certainly has been a tremendous struggle with the darkness in this world fighting against that which is right and beautiful and holy."
Saturday's seminary dedication will culminate a 15-year relationship, Kearns said.
In 1985, the Bishops Conference of Nigeria established a community of priests to serve in other parts of the world, including Asia and Europe, he said. Nigerian officials contacted U.S. Josephites, who responded by donating money and extending an invitation for the Nigerian priests to work with blacks in this country.
In 1986, three Nigerian priests arrived. Since then, 18 have worked in Baltimore, Washington, New Orleans, Houston and Mobile.