I thought I’d been everywhere in Baltimore, thought I’d seen everything from every possible vantage, until the other day. While standing on Oliver Street, on the far east side of the city, I looked to my left. A half-mile to the west, where the street rises, was a magnificent bell tower I had never noticed before, almost shocking in its singularity against the gray sky.
It looked to be more than 100 feet tall, but taller still because of its location.
I’m pretty sure I’d seen the large stone church attached to it, St. Francis Xavier, at East Oliver and North Caroline. But I had never before seen the tower so clearly, high and mighty and pointed toward heaven.
You regard a thing like that, assuming it was built ages ago — in fact, 120 years ago — and you wonder how mere mortals constructed it, how they got to the very top to install the cross.
Located in a stretch of old Baltimore where there has been abandonment through the decades — far from tourist destinations — the church and its tower appear like a fortress immune to the ravages of time.
Pardon me if I sound awestruck. If you don’t look around, you miss things. If you don’t look up from your smartphone, you won’t see these marvelous, durable Baltimore creations.
And if you don’t look deeper and ask around, you won’t fully understand what these old places represent in terms of Baltimore’s history — in this case, its religious and racial history, how things came to be as they are today.
St. Francis Xavier is considered the oldest Catholic parish for African Americans in the U.S. It’s a long story that starts with Haitian refugees landing on the Baltimore waterfront in the late 18th Century, runs through the 19th Century and the battle to end slavery, and into the 20th Century, during a time when many white Baltimoreans balked at integration, including in their churches.
While the historic distinction of St. Francis Xavier was a revelation to me, the parish is well known among Black Catholics in Maryland, and reporters who covered religion for The Sun over the years got to this story before I did.
In the summer of 1793, some 500 Black Haitians fleeing revolution in their homeland stepped off ships in Fells Point. The refugees were Catholic and they spoke French. With the help of French priests who had landed in Baltimore two years earlier, they formed a congregation and sought places to gather for worship. They started by celebrating Mass in a lower chapel at St. Mary’s Seminary, then on Paca Street, and later moved to another church basement with the help of Jesuit priests.
The congregation officially became a parish in 1864, when it moved into a church that had originally been constructed for whites at Calvert and Pleasant streets. A few years later, the Josephites — priests of the Society of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart — were placed in charge of the parish.
“It became the first Catholic Church in Baltimore (and the United States) for African Americans to worship beyond the basement or at the back of an existing church,” states a history of the congregation by BlackPast, an online site devoted to African-American history.
The parish made two more moves — into what had been an Episcopal church in East Baltimore in 1933 and into the present church with the impressive tower in 1968.
That last move prompted a question: How did it happen and why?
The official histories seem to omit or gloss over the transition of the parish to its present home.
The grand church with the grand tower was built in 1902 and dedicated as St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church; the parish was white and largely Irish American.
Baltimore had started losing population in the 1950s, in the years after the Supreme Court ruled that state-sanctioned racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
By the 1960s, as the civil rights movement intensified and white flight from the city picked up pace, the parish of St. Paul’s apparently started to decline. A merger of St. Paul’s and St. Francis Xavier occurred, but by 1970, the only remaining parishioners were Black.
The only Black priest in Baltimore at the time was the Rev. Phillip Linden, a Josephite assigned to the big church at Caroline and Oliver.
In an interview with Sharon Dickman, then a religion reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun, Linden said he eschewed the merged name of the church. “He prefers to call it just St. Francis Xavier,” Dickman reported, “because ‘St. Paul’s was an all-white church and they ran out’ of the neighborhood.”
The priest’s expressed concern was for the people immediately around the church, many of whom were poor. He told Dickman he had little time for the administrative duty of providing baptismal certificates for adults who had moved from the city to the counties and needed the documentation in order to be married in Catholic Churches in Baltimore’s suburbs.
Linden also refused to visit suburban churches and speak to congregations there as the archdiocese’s only Black priest unless they paid $150 to help feed the poor of his parish in East Baltimore.
That was remarkable candor for a Catholic priest in 1970. And good thing. A half-century on, it fills out the record and helps tell the story of how things came to be as they are.