By Father Frank Hull, SSJ
The Josephite community has its roots in Baltimore. Its call came from here. Its mission began here. Its work flowered here. Its headquarters opened here and remains here. The Josephites are happy to be a 143-year part of the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s 225-year history.
When the American Bishops met in Baltimore in 1866 during the Second Plenary Council, they sent a plea to Rome to send missionaries to the recently emancipated slaves. At the same time, the Catholic Church in England was forming a community to prepare priests to send
to the foreign missions. This was the St. Joseph Foreign Mission Society under the direction of Father Herbert Vaughan. In 1871, he offered the first four priests to Pope Pius IX who directed them to America where the archbishop of Baltimore, Martin John Spalding, welcomed them to St. Francis Xavier parish, the Jesuit-sponsored community of African Americans. This became the first fully staffed African-American parish in the country and still thrives at its third location in East Baltimore.
The Josephites extended their ministry to Prince George’s County in Maryland and south to Virginia and North Carolina and by 1888 had 15 priests. That same year, in an effort to attract American vocations, they purchased the old Western Maryland Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore, directly behind St. Mary’s Seminary, and named it St. Joseph’s Seminary. The students attended classes at St. Mary’s for 48 years and it was the first seminary in the country to admit black students. In 1891, Father Charles Uncles, one of the seminarians, was ordained in the Baltimore Cathedral by Cardinal Gibbons, the first black priest ordained in the United States. Father Uncles was a native Baltimorean and a member of St. Francis Xavier parish.
The Josephites established its second parish – St. Peter Claver on Fremont Avenue in Baltimore, which was served by priests from St. Joseph’s Seminary. The seminary that year produced the first printed copy of The Colored Harvest (now The Josephite Harvest), the oldest continually published mission magazine in the country.
Another sign of growth was the 1889 purchase of the Highland Park Hotel in the Walbrook section of Baltimore as a minor seminary. The building was renovated with the help of St. Katharine Drexel’s sister. The institution trained young seminarians until it moved from Baltimore to Newburgh, New York, in 1930.
In collaboration with Baltimore’s Cardinal James Gibbons and the approval of the parent English Society of St. Joseph, it was decided that a separate American community with a singular purpose of serving African Americans would attract more men and provide a more efficient administration. In 1893, five men chose to begin the new community with the name of St. Joseph’s Society of the Sacred Heart (Josephites). Cardinal Gibbons assumed local jurisdiction and the five men headquartered in Baltimore were now in charge of eight churches and two institutions.
The new community faced many challenges with a shortage of men and an excess of financial and social problems. But the Lord provided both men and means for expansion, especially into the southern dioceses. In Baltimore, St. Monica, St. Pius V, St. Veronica and Christ the King parishes were added. Through demographic changes, two of these were eventually eliminated. One of these, St. Monica Church, established in 1893, was eventually demolished to make way for the Orioles’ Baseball stadium. St. Pius V had its origins in St. Barnabas Church in 1907 and was recently joined with St. Peter Claver parish. St. Veronica’s has been in the Cherry Hill neighborhood since 1945.
When Washington was part of the Baltimore archdiocese, Josephites had served St. Augustine parish in the early 1880’s. Holy Redeemer parish was erected in 1922 and Incarnation and Good Shepherd parishes in 1924. Three years later, the Josephites assumed pastorship of St. Vincent de Paul when a vast urban re-construction leveled most of the Good Shepherd area. In 1932, the Josephites opened St. Joseph’s parish in Glenarden. Holy Family Church in Mitchellville had a Josephite pastor from 1938 to 1972. The Church of the Epiphany in Georgetown was built as a Josephite parish and continued for 35 years.
The Josephites rejoiced when one of its own, Josephite Father John Ricard, was appointed auxiliary bishop of Baltimore in 1984. Born into the Josephite parish of St. Francis Xavier in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he served Baltimore with special distinction as urban vicar for 13 years. He was appointed the Ordinary of the Pensacola-Tallahassee diocese in northern Florida where he served until his retirement in 2011. He is now rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Washington, a building dedicated by Baltimore’s Archbishop Michael Curley in 1929.
The Josephite presence in the Baltimore archdiocese has been greatly enhanced by several religious communities of Sisters. The community of Franciscan Sisters, founded in Glen Riddle, Pennsylvania, by the sainted Baltimorean Bishop John Neumann when he was Philadelphia’s archbishop, came to staff St. Peter Claver School in 1890 and served for 108 years. The Josephites had long been associated with the Sisters’ St. Joseph’s Hospital at both its old location on Eager Street in Baltimore and the new one in Towson, Maryland. The O’Dea Medical Building at the Towson site is named for a former Josephite superior general and long-time chaplain.
The Baltimore-based Oblate Sisters of Providence taught in the first Josephite parish school at St. Francis Xavier in 1878. In 1893, they taught in Baltimore’s archdiocesan schools in Washington – at St. Cyprian’s until 1986 and from 1923 to 1954 at Good Shepherd (St. Vincent). Josephites have long been chaplains at the Oblates’ century-plus-old St. Frances Academy on Chase Street in East Baltimore whose chapel was dedicated by Cardinal Gibbons in 1907.
The House of Good Shepherd for Colored Girls was established in Baltimore in 1892 with the help of the pastor at St. Peter Claver who had interested Mrs. Elizabeth Morrell, sister of St. Katharine Drexel, to finance a suitable building.
The Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart grew from a ladies’ St. Joseph Guild at the new Josephite parish of St. Peter Claver in 1890 specifically to teach religion to black children in public schools. The religious community was approved by Cardinal Gibbons who appointed a Josephite as their first superior. By 1895, they had four houses on West Biddle Street where they conducted an industrial school and did catechetical work in six parishes. They pioneered in working with the deaf while maintaining their special mission to catechetical teaching.
Their presence in Baltimore continues from their house in Towson.
In the early 1940s, the School Sisters of Notre Dame were prominent in community affairs in the Josephite parish of St. Veronica in the Cherry Hill area of Baltimore. The parish developed its Head Start Program into one of the country’s largest. The Sisters had been teaching at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Washington 20 years before the Josephites were assigned the parish in 1943. Their ministry there covered 85 years.
The Josephites were instrumental in opening the first orphanage for black girls in Baltimore –
St. Elizabeth’s on St. Paul Street in 1881. The Sisters of St. Francis were originally an Anglican community working with the poor in London and Father Vaughan brought them into the Church in 1871 and appointed a Josephite as their first ecclesiastical superior. Ten years later, the now Bishop Vaughan asked them to come to Baltimore where they assumed operation of a home for African-American girls on St. Paul Street near the Josephite St. Francis Xavier Church. They opened an orphanage on the Josephite minor seminary property in Walbrook in 1889 and later moved to Maryland Avenue. Presently, they operate St. Francis School for Special Education and St. Elizabeth School.
The most recent Josephite house in Baltimore opened in 1961 as a retirement and nursing facility for its members. It had been the home of the Jenkins family who had built Corpus Christi Church on Mount Royal Avenue. Cardinal Gibbons was a visitor to this 1880’s-era house and offered Mass in its chapel. A new facility was built in 1999, dedicated by Cardinal William Keeler. The older building has been used as a Josephite novitiate.
For the last 84 years, the Josephite headquarters has been on North Calvert Street. The current Superior General is Father William Norvel, the first African American to head the Society. No stranger to Baltimore, he had served as Consultor General from 1983 to 1987 and was pastor of St. Francis Xavier parish from 1996 to 2000.
The Society continues to direct from Baltimore. There are Josephites in 14 dioceses and two seminary sites in Nigeria where 16 men are in study. Six others study in Washington.
May the nourishing by the Archdiocese of Baltimore in the past continue God’s work ad multos annos.