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Rev. Richard T. Lawrence, former St. Vincent de Paul pastor and advocate for the poor, dies

The Rev. Richard Lawrence was a vigorous advocate for the poor.
The Rev. Richard Lawrence was a vigorous advocate for the poor. (Doug Kapustin, The Baltimore Sun)

The Rev. Richard T. Lawrence, former pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Baltimore’s Jonestown neighborhood and a voice for the poor, died of respiratory failure Thursday at Stella Maris Hospice in Timonium. He was 77 and lived downtown.

Archbishop William William Lori said in a statement, “Throughout the Archdiocese and the City of Baltimore there are so many who mourn the passing of Fr. Dick Lawrence. From our neighbors who are homeless to those who enjoy positions of the highest prominence, he was known for his fierce commitment to living out the Gospel call to love the least among us. May his legacy long be a reminder of the priorities we must keep before us as we strive to bring peace and healing to our City.”

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The Rev. William Watters, former pastor of St. Ignatius Church, said, “Dick was a brilliant man, and his great love for the poor was amazing. It was his banner.”

Born in Baltimore, he was the son of Albert E. Lawrence, an Internal Revenue Service worker, and his wife, Irene Moran. Raised in Pikesville, he attended St. Charles Borromeo School and was a graduate of Loyola High School at Blakefield. He spent two years at what is now Loyola University Maryland and entered St. Mary’s Seminary on Paca Street. He held degrees in theology and business administration. He earned a doctorate in religion at the Catholic University of America.

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“As a deacon assigned to St. Gregory the Great parish in West Baltimore, the 25-year-old Rev. Mr. Lawrence, on the night of April 4, 1968, went to the bell tower of St. Gregory the Great and struck the Great Toll, once a minute, 39 times, signaling to the neighborhood the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. ,” said Albert “Al” Reichelt, a member of his parish and friend.

“As a seminarian working for social justice and civil rights, he played an important role, along with other clergy and civil rights leaders, in bringing calm to the streets of Baltimore and engineering the formation of emergency food distribution centers from the inner-city Catholic churches,” said Mr. Reichelt. “Thus began the ordained ministry of Richard T. Lawrence.”

Several years after his ordination in 1968, Father Lawrence was appointed to what was considered a backwater downtown parish, St. Vincent de Paul Church on Front Street near the main post office. It was a temporary assignment, and he was to study “the possibility of closing the parish.”

“This was never an option in his mind, and so he began to make St. Vincent parish into a thoroughly Vatican II church,” said Mr. Reichelt. “He first established a parish council with a constitution that institutionalized collegial government.”

He said that Father Lawrence sought to empower the laity to take responsibility for the work of the church, including Christian education and worship, administration and finances, community service and social justice.

“His homilies were so rich in Scripture, church history, sound theology, and spirituality, that they invariably encouraged and challenged growth in spirituality and action,” said Mr. Reichelt. “Parishioners were encouraged to think for themselves and take advantage of seminars, retreats, and discussion groups.”

He encouraged his parishioners to take courses at St. Mary’s Seminary and University.

He led lively liturgies. He had an All Saints-All Souls Day celebration in the Mexican “Day of the Dead” tradition, a Seder meal prior to the Holy Thursday Eucharist, and an all-night Easter Vigil modeling an ancient tradition.

Father Lawrence placed the 40 books of the Bible on a church altar surrounding the tabernacle. The books were in the original language of the Scriptures, Hebrew or Greek, with an English translation on the facing page. Lectors read from these books.

He realized the need for his parish to have a neighborhood identity and set up a Jonestown Planning Council.

“It provided a legal and political voice for a poor neighborhood where no voice had previously existed,” said Mr. Reichelt. “This organization’s goal was to assist the area with commercial development, historic preservation, and services for the working poor and daycare center. He accomplished one of the council’s priorities, to replace the dangerous high-rise projects with community-enhancing row homes.

Father Lawrence and his parish also provided a clothes closet, a food pantry and meal opportunities.

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In 2000 the parish bought the public park adjacent to its church near the Shot Tower at the corner of President and Fayette streets. It became a place where homeless people gathered in the shaded parcel stocked with benches.

“I’d like to see everyone … get help and everyone … get housing,” he said in a 2009 Sun article. “But as long as there are guys who, for whatever reason, are not ready yet to go to a shelter, there needs to be a place where they can stay outside and be relatively safe.”

Father Lawrence was also recalled for his financial expertise. He worked on the finances of the Baltimore Archdiocese and established the St. Vincent’s Historic Trust Fund.

An advocate for Catholic education, he set up an endowment for SS. James and John Catholic School on Somerset Street in East Baltimore.

Father Lawrence was an advocate of ending the death penalty in Maryland. And in 2012 he preached a sermon indicating his personal support of Question 6, to authorize same-sex marriage.

He retired in 2017 after 43 years at the church.

He maintained a large personal library, accessed by a ladder on wheels, and attended Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Peabody Conservatory concerts. He also collected historic maps and enjoyed board games.

A funeral Mass will be offered at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Vincent de Paul Church, 120 N. Front St. Because of Covid-19 precautions, online registration is required.

Survivors include nieces and nephews.

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