Anne Litchfield, right, and grandniece Alden Harchik, 5, are… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
William J. Huller has been attending Mass with his wife for more than a half-century. The Catonsville man drove their six children to catechism classes and celebrated as they advanced through the sacraments of the church.
On Saturday, at the age of 83, Huller became a Catholic.
"It'll be a change," he said before the Easter Vigil Mass at St. Gabriel in Woodlawn, where he finally was confirmed into the church into which he had married and raised his family. "It's kind of a new experience for me."
Huller was one of 1,090 adults who were set to join the church at Masses throughout the Archdiocese of Baltimore, establishing a new record for the local church for the second straight year.
"We're on a roll, I guess,' said Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, who celebrated the sacrament of confirmation at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. O'Brien said he couldn't be sure what had led to the increases. While he'd like to give credit to the archdiocesan staff, he said, "the rubber hits the road in the parishes. It's there where we find the real life of the church."
The conversions come during a difficult time for the church both locally and internationally. In Baltimore, O'Brien's decision to close 13 of the archdiocese's 64 schools at the end of the academic year has angered students, parents and alumni.
Internationally, a clergy sex abuse scandal that once appeared largely confined to the United States is now spreading across Europe, with questions now focusing on how Pope Benedict XVI responded to cases when he was archbishop of Munich in his native Germany and, later, as chief doctrinal watchdog of the Vatican.
Rich Foster said the scandal did not affect his decision to join the church.
"It reflects the frailties of all of us as humans," said Foster, 59, a city resident. "We all have sinned. ... Part of what the church teaches us is reconciliation, redemption and forgiveness."
Foster sees the church making more of an effort to deal with the issues more forthrightly than in the past. He sees New All Saints Church, which he has attended occasionally with his Catholic convert wife for nearly 30 years, as "a congregation that I see doing wonderful work in terms of giving back to the community, being open and welcoming to both church members and the outside community."
"I think that outweighs to me any concerns that may arise in this current controversy," he said. He also feels Catholic leaders will be dealing more forthrightly with reports of abuse as they arise in the future.
"I trust my church will go forward in a righteous manner, dealing with these issues directly," he said.
O'Brien acknowledged that the scandal has tested parishioners' faith.
"I know a lot of Catholics who are confused and certainly embarrassed by the horrendous actions on the part of a few priests," O'Brien said.
In October, Pope Benedict made it easier for members of the worldwide Anglican Communion, including Episcopalians in the United States, to convert to Catholicism while still maintaining some of their own worship traditions. But archdiocesan officials do not believe that drove the high number of converts.
Many parishes have active evangelism programs run by lay members, which provide an opportunity for people to invest in the life of the church, O'Brien said.
"The fact that the church is active and upfront and involved gets people's attention," he said. "We're not being ignored. We're there in every part of the process and very visible and audible, and that creates an interest in people who may have no church community."
The 1,090 confirmed Saturday surpassed the 984 confirmed last year, the largest number in the decade for which the archdiocese has records. About a quarter of this year's class were baptized for the first time, according to Sharon Bogusz, the archdiocese's coordinator of evangelization and adult catechesis. Some of the rest were baptized Catholic as infants but didn't receive other sacraments. The majority are converts from other Christian traditions whose baptisms the Catholic Church recognizes.
"It's wonderful - our parishes are really doing a lot of hard work and sharing good news and welcome," Bogusz said.
Foster said it was the connection to New All Saints that led him to convert.
"I just wanted to formalize what has been a kind of informal relationship with the church," he said.
While attending the Catholic Church for decades, Foster had maintained his allegiance to the Episcopal church where he was baptized.
"I, just at a certain point, wanted to be more closely associated with a congregation in a more formal way," said Foster, a former television producer who is now a media consultant. "Perhaps as I get older I think more about my mortality and think more about my faith and strengthening it."
Now he, too, will be receiving sacraments at the parish as his three children did.
Huller, who was raised Methodist, wasn't sure why he waited so long to convert.
"Since the end of World War II, I've just learned not to volunteer for anything," he said.
His wife set an excellent example, though she never prodded him to convert, Huller said. "I think primarily what influenced me was my wife and the type of person she was, and how she lived," he said.
Only one aspect of the conversion made Huller nervous. "I'm not used to confession, I'll tell you that," he said.