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Rev. Richard T. Lawrence, longtime pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church and advocate for the poor and homeless, dies

Reverend Richard T. Lawrence gave his final mass on Sunday before a full house.
Reverend Richard T. Lawrence gave his final mass on Sunday before a full house. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

The Rev. Richard T. Lawrence, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Baltimore’s Jonestown neighborhood, died Thursday at Stella Maris Hospice in Timonium. He was 77 and had been suffering from diabetes.

Father Lawrence served the downtown church since the early 1970s ccement.

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“He was a brilliant man and his great love for the poor was amazing,” said the Rev. William Watters, former pastor of St. Ignatius Catholic Church. “His work for the poor was his banner.”Father Lawrence was born in Baltimore, raised in St. Charles Parish in Pikesville, attended Loyola HS and 2 years at Loyola College before entering St. Mary’s Seminary on Paca St. He holds degrees in Theology, Business Administration and a Doctorate in Religion from Catholic University.

As deacon assigned to St. Gregory the Great parish, 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. 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. Thus began the ordained ministry of Richard T. Lawrence.

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Five years later in 1973, Fr. Lawrence was appointed to St. Vincent de Paul Church as a temporary administrator 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. First was the establishment of a Parish Council with a constitution that institutionalized collegial government. Fr. Lawrence sought to empower the laity to take full responsibility for the work of the church, including Christian education and worship, administration and finances, community service and social justice. Fr. Lawrence’s homilies were so rich in scripture, church history, sound theology, and spirituality, that they invariably encouraged and challenged growth in spirituality and action. Parishioners were encouraged to think for themselves and take advantage of seminars, retreats, and discussion groups on scripture, social justice, theology, and spirituality as well as partake of parish-sponsored scholarships to St. Mary’s Ecumenical. Given these tools and the freedom to use and develop their talents, parishioners became fully involved addressing the needs they saw within the parish, within the neighborhood and the city, as well as the needs of the larger Catholic Church community. St. Vincent de Paul parishioners did think for themselves and gained a reputation for their very thoughtful and extensive responses to issues and documents that the Archdiocese or the US Bishops made available for comment.

Fr. Lawrence’s approach to pastoring further extended Fathers Martin and Straub’s vision of a welcoming and inclusive church, primarily through liturgy open to all. The “lively and enlivening” liturgies, planned by the Liturgy Committee, were the height and source of parish life, spawning such traditions as an All Saints/All Souls celebration in the Mexican “Day of the Dead” tradition, a full Seder meal prior to the Holy Thursday Eucharist, and an all-night Easter Vigil modeling an ancient tradition. The Art and Architecture Committee oversaw the renovation of the church for the 150th anniversary which included the work of Fr. Lawrence in the preparation of an Altar Bible, 24 books containing the original language of the scripture (either Hebrew or Greek) on one page, with corresponding translation into English on the facing page. From these Sacred Books, enshrined on either side of the tabernacle on the high altar, the scriptures for every liturgy are read.

Under Fr. Lawrence community service expanded with the creation of the Jonestown Planning Council, providing a legal and political voice for a poor neighborhood where no voice had previously existed. This organization’s goal was to assist the area with commercial development, historic preservation, and services for the working poor, such as a daycare center. One of its priorities, to replace the dangerous high-rise projects with community-enhancing row homes, was accomplished. The parish provides a clothes closet, a food pantry, and various meal opportunities weekly and at special times of the year for the benefit of local residents and the homeless. The parish established and maintains the St. Vincent Park as a safe haven for the homeless and the poor of Baltimore, and its Resource Exchange works with Healthcare for the Homeless providing housing for the homeless.

The parish tackled many social justice and peace issues by hosting speakers such as Cezar Chavez and working with other organizations such as Pax Christi, BRIDGE, the Murphy Initiative, Habitat for Humanity and Our Daily Bread. The parish has established relationships with sister parishes in San Juan de Limay, Nicaragua, and Vilnius, Lithuania, and helps provide student scholarships in South Africa.

Fr. Lawrence’s strong financial expertise not only turned the Archdiocese’s years of red ink to black ink but also established the St. Vincent’s Historic Trust Fund (an endowment for maintenance) and secured the parish’s preservation on the National Register of Historic Places. This expertise also led him to seek to preserve Catholic education in the inner city by establishing an endowment for St. James and John Catholic School.

Of all that has been accomplished in Fr. Lawrence’s 43 year pastorate, the critical accomplishment that has made it all possible was his commitment to empowering the laity to take their rightful place in the church’s mission.

Father Lawrence was well known in social justice circles and was often called the caretaker of a homeless encampment around his Front Street church. He was also recalled as a gifted and learned preacher.

In a statement, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori said, “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.”

Father Lawrence was an advocate of ending the death penalty in Maryland. He was also supporter of Catholic schools.

He was a graduate of then-Loyola High School at Blakefield and Loyola University Maryland.

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A funeral Mass will be held at 11 a.m. Dec. 5 at St, Vincent de Paul Church on Front Street in downtown Baltimore.

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