The Harvest

Pictured are earlier covers of The Harvest. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun / October 31, 2013)

Revered as a "gentleman in the finest sense of the word, remarkable convert-maker and a friend of the benighted," the Rev. Vincent Warren drove into rural Virginia one September night to share the word of God. He had no idea of what awaited.

A caravan of cars overtook his own. Hooded men in white robes forced him into one of their cars and drove off. They interrogated the cleric at gunpoint — "What are you doing in the area? Are you going to start a church?" — before releasing him hours later.

Warren was a priest of the Josephites, an order of the Roman Catholic Church founded in post-Civil War Baltimore to serve African-Americans. His captors were members of the Ku Klux Klan. The kidnapping was reported in a 1926 issue of The Harvest, the magazine that has chronicled the work of the Josephites for 125 years.

The Josephites — formally known as St. Joseph's Society of the Sacred Heart — mark the publication's anniversary Saturday with a special 10 a.m. Mass at the Basilica of the Assumption. Archbishop William E. Lori is to preside over the service, which honors the oldest continuously operating Catholic magazine in the United States.

"The Josephites have made a tremendous contribution to the evangelization and pastoral care of the African-American community since they [started] in 1871, and The Harvest has been the magazine of record of their work," Lori said.

Still headquartered in a brownstone on North Calvert Street, the society remains the only Catholic order specifically dedicated to serving African-Americans.

Known for its first 72 years as The Colored Harvest, the magazine grew along with the Josephites, documenting their triumphs large and small in an upbeat, human-interest style even as it compiled a unique record of American history.

"The Harvest was originally established to attract seminarians and support their training, and to attract people interested in supporting the seminary," said the Rev. Frank Hull, who has worked on The Harvest for 50 years. "Then it began to disseminate news about our missions."

The mission began shortly after the Civil War, the aftermath of which left Western Christianity with a stark question: How to address the spiritual needs of 4 million people newly freed from slavery?

One man who took a special interest in this question, according to church records, was the archbishop of Baltimore, Martin John Spalding, who appealed to Rome for help. That wasn't a popular idea within the church, many of whose leaders felt blacks were "inferior and not worthy of time and teaching," said Hull, 89.

Five years later, though, Pope Pius IX dispatched an English prelate to Baltimore to establish a society to minister to the former slaves. Eventually, the society named itself after St. Joseph, viewed by Catholics as "the first missionary," and officially became an American order.

Working out of a former hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Josephites labored to establish a seminary, set up parishes and schools, teach African-Americans the Catholic faith and promote teachings on social justice.

"After all, Jesus' last words were, 'Go to all nations and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,' and that's what we've done," said Hull, who became editor of The Harvest on Aug. 28, 1963, the day of the March on Washington. It was the first of several times he would hold the position.

The first issue in October 1888 bore a statement in bold letters just below the banner: "The Harvest Is Great, But the Laborers Are Few."

Written by the members of the order, the magazine didn't just attract donors or keep readers across the nation up to date on the latest school opening, Communion class or parishioner's career triumph. It also established a record of race relations in the country.

During the 1880s and 1890s, Harvest writers enlisted support for the freedmen. In 1910, they chronicled the birth of the Knights of Peter Claver, still the largest African-American fraternal organization. They wrote about the Klan, the desegregation of schools, the civil rights movement and the struggles of black Louisiana communities after Hurricane Katrina.

The magazine reported that Father Warren survived his run-in with the Klan to go on to run a school in Norfolk, Va.

In each case, Josephites were actively involved in the events, often appearing in the articles. Writers favored an unapologetically subjective tone.

"From the start, our priests and parishioners in Baltimore were aware that this was no ordinary demonstration, but rather that we were engulfed in a tidal wave of spiritual force which had to have an outlet in action," read the story on the March on Washington in 1963.

Today, the magazine publishes quarterly and reaches 30,000 people.

The Rev. Joseph Doyle, longtime principal of St. Augustine High School, the all-African-American institution the Josephites run in New Orleans, wrote in a recent issue that he decided to become a Josephite after reading an issue of The Harvest in his hometown of Philadelphia.

The Josephites don't boast the numbers they once did. Their contingent of priests has dwindled from nearly 300 to about 80, Hull said, in part because Catholic clergy who want to serve the African-American community can do so within the larger dioceses, not just as part of a missionary order.

Still, they operate 41 parishes and parish schools in seven states and the District of Columbia, including four parishes and a school in Baltimore.

The Josephites keep a copy of every issue of The Harvest in an archive maintained in the basement of their North Calvert Street headquarters, where the magazine has been housed since 1930. The longevity alone is noteworthy, said Dan Meninger, whose communications firm, Advertising Media Plus of Columbia, has helped publish the magazine for the past eight years.

"These men want to spend their days saving souls, but they knew from the start that it was important to get their story told," he said. "The fact that they're still doing it after 125 years is remarkable."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com