There was standing room only last night at a special Mass at St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church in East Baltimore. But that was all right, because it seemed that almost no one wanted to sit down during a celebration marking the 125th anniversary of the Josephite order.
The Mass began just after sunset with the gospel choir singing, "We've Come This Far by Faith." Their voices brought the 600 people gathered in the sanctuary to their feet, and the audience clapped and sang along while a line of religious dignitaries, led by Cardinal William H. Keeler, walked down the center aisle.
"This is a moment of rejoicing for us," said the Rev. William L. Norvel, pastor at St. Francis Xavier. "This is a moment to thank God. But this is also a moment to ask God to help us keep on keeping on in his name."
The Mass marked the founding in 1871 of St. Joseph's Society of the Sacred Heart -- the Josephites -- in London. It sent priests to Baltimore that same year to serve Catholics of African descent by starting parishes and schools.
Among the area's first free black Catholics were those who arrived at Fells Point in 1793 from Haiti. In their honor, last night's Mass was attended by Haitian Bishop Emmanuel Constant.
The Mass was also attended by the Baltimore's retired Archbishop William D. Borders and Bishops William E. Lori and Leonard J. Olivier of the Archdiocese of Washington.
St. Francis Xavier, the setting for the celebration, has plain walls with peeling paint and unremarkable statues. But in that sanctuary, the Josephites led efforts that enriched the lives of African-Americans of all faiths.
Keeler called St. Francis Xavier the "mother church" for African-American Catholics and reflected on highlights of the history of black Catholics in Baltimore during his half-hour homily.
He pointed out that in the beginning, Josephite priests sent to the church were aided by the Oblate Sisters, the first religious order in the world for women of African descent. In 1891, he said, the first African-American priest, the Rev. Charles Randolph Uncles, was ordained. And in the 1970s, the first Catholic gospel choir in the eastern United States was formed at St. Francis Xavier.
The number of parishes operated by the Josephites in Baltimore has dwindled from seven to four -- St. Francis Xavier, St. Veronica in Cherry Hill, St. Peter Claver in West Baltimore and St. Pius V in Harlem Park, which merged with St. Barnabas.
There are eight active Josephite priests here, along with 10 administrators. Yet the contributions of the order continue to have a wide impact.
In 1986, the order led efforts to raise funds for the construction of low-income housing in blighted West Baltimore neighborhoods, including Sandtown-Winchester and Penn North through the Nehemiah housing program.
The Josephites operate Maryland's largest Head Start program, at St. Veronica, with an enrollment of 300.
Bishop John H. Ricard, a Josephite, oversees Baltimore City parishes serving some 85,000 Catholics. The bishop also heads Catholic Relief Services, the Baltimore-based agency that is the world's second-largest nonprofit provider of foreign aid.
Most of the nation's 125 active Josephite priests are white Irish Catholics working in Southern states, including Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Keeler said they provided an example to other Catholic orders of service to those in need, no matter of what color or ethnicity, and he commended the Josephites for their fidelity to their work and to God.
The cardinal decried racism in this country and in the church, as one of its lingering faults, and challenged everyone in the mostly black audience to speak out wherever racism is allowed to flourish.
"America's soul must be cleansed," he said.
In closing, the cardinal also promised the congregation that the Archdiocese of Baltimore would do all in its power to keep open the city's Catholic schools.
And he challenged the audience to encourage young people to pursue religious lives as priests and nuns.
"Our young people are open to a call from God," he said. "What they miss, what they look for is something they used to get here frequently. And that is support and encouragement from friends, relatives and people they look up to."
Pub Date: 12/01/96