A half-century as a man of the cloth

Josephite: A West Baltimore priest found his calling to serve God in an order committed to serving African-Americans.

July 08, 2000|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Henry Harper welcomes them all - the poor, the sick, the homeless, the addicts. The needy come to the rectory door of his West Baltimore church day and night, seeking water, a sandwich, a few dollars, advice.

As a Josephite priest, helping out people - particularly African-Americans - is not only Harper's job. It's his life.

"It doesn't matter what hour it is," said the Rev. Raymond A. Woodka, administrator of St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church, where Harper has worked as the associate pastor for 12 years. "He is simply available."

Harper, 75, will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood at 4 p.m. today with a Mass at St. Peter Claver.

The soft-spoken priest laughs upon hearing that some consider him a soft touch.

His reason is simple: Doing for others is doing for Christ. "We try to see Jesus Christ in other people," he said.

Harper was born in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, on Dec. 9, 1924, to Rear Adm. John Harper and the former Henrietta Berens. He was one of five children. His brother, Richard, who died in 1991, was a Jesuit priest.

He was raised in the Washington, D.C., area, and attended Georgetown Preparatory in Garrett Park and St. Charles College in Catonsville.

Harper became a priest, he said, because of the example set by priests he knew growing up. He first intended to become a Baltimore diocesan priest and studied at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore. He changed his plans upon learning about the Josephite Society and attended Mary Immaculate Novitiate in Newburgh, N.Y., and the Josephite St. Joseph Seminary in Washington, D.C.

The Josephite order, which was founded in England in the 1860s, came to Baltimore in 1871 and began to focus on blacks enduring social struggles after slavery. It is the only American society of priests and religious brothers whose ministry is exclusively dedicated to service in the African-American community, according to the order.

"I felt the church had a great need to reach out to an area which it had maybe neglected in the past," Harper explained.

The Josephite order, which has its headquarters in Baltimore, has about 135 priests and brothers nationally, about 30 of whom are African-American.

In May, a group of Baltimoreans led by local Josephite priests traveled to Nigeria for the opening of a seminary that's expected to provide a pool of priests to serve the growing black Catholic population in the United States.

The United States has 3 million to 4 million black Catholics.

Harper's roundabout journey to serving a local segment of that population began in June 1950, after he was ordained at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Harper then spent five decades serving as a parish priest in Josephite-staffed churches in Washington, Baton Rogue, La., Houston, Norfolk and Alexandria, Va., and Baltimore. Harper has served as the pastor in four of the 11 churches where he has worked.

In his years as a Josephite, Harper has distinguished himself through his efforts to promote equal rights for African-Americans. He has worked with people who have been discriminated against, organized phone drives to increase voter participation in local elections and worked closely with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Little keeps Harper from the people he serves.

After he broke his leg while skiing with a church youth group in 1988, Harper said Mass from his wheelchair.

He underwent a quadruple bypass operation in February after a heart attack. Harper was back with his parish by Easter.

The Rev. Eugene McManus likens Harper's dedication and excellence to that of Babe Ruth and Cal Ripken. "Sometimes people do their job in an extraordinary way," said McManus, public relations director for the Josephite Society who has known Harper for 53 years. "He is an amazingly kind man who can communicate without saying it that he cares about you."

Deborah Holly, 50, who was baptized at St. Peter Claver and has been a member of the parish her entire life, calls Harper her mentor.

"He's a very gentle and compassionate person, very considerate of the littlest things," said Holly, a lay minister at St. Peter Claver.

So considerate, in fact, that Harper didn't want today's anniversary Mass to be just about him. At his request, the Mass will recognize and celebrate all of the people and missions of his church.

"We're taking this occasion to celebrate his example of ministry," Holly said.

"That," said Woodka, "is a beautiful thing."

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