Revisiting the History of the Josephites & the Permanent Diaconate

Revisiting the History of the Josephites & the Permanent Diaconate

By Deacon Tim Tilghman

Black Catholic Young Adults from across the nation recently convened and developed a strategic plan to invite their fallen away contemporaries and others back into the Church they love. Among the most significant goals in their plan is more vocations from the African American community to serve their community and the larger Church. The Josephites, who were founded in 1871, to serve the African American community and beyond developed a program that I think is unrivaled in the Church of the United States for attracting men to ordained ministry.

It was not a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but immediately after Vatican II, The Society of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, aka, The Josephites, took bold, radical action, petitioning the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (now the USCCB) to start a Permanent Diaconate Formation Program, a petition which was granted on August 30, 1968. It its June 25, 1970 edition, The Anchor, the Catholic Newspaper in Fall River, MA included an article, 26 Men Halfway to Deacon Goal, about 26 men who were midway in their formation for ordination as permanent deacons. Here are some data about that first in the country class:

  • 26 men, 17 from Washington; 7 from Baltimore; and 2 from Richmond
  • 24 men completed the program 16 from Washington, 6 from Baltimore; and 2 from Richmond
  • 8 African Americans from the class were ordained in 1971 (33%); 7 from Washington and 1 from Baltimore; 33% of an ordination class was unprecedented then

Who did it?  The Josephites, more specifically:

From Left to Right:

Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle, Archbishop of Washington, was fully open to having the formation program in his Archdiocese. This is consistent with his 1948 decision to immediately integrate Catholic parishes and schools across the Archdiocese.

Very Rev. George O’Dea, SSJ submitted the successful petition start the Permanent Diaconate Formation Program that was approved in1968, and implemented in 1969. Such a monumental change was approved with lightning speed in the local Church.

Very Rev. Paul Downey, SSJ was the Rector at St. Joseph’s Seminary. Think of the racial tension in the country in 1968 and the challenge of receiving men from the former capital of the Confederacy into a program with African Americans.

Very Rev. Robert Kearns, SSJ was the Director of Formation who was key in developing and directing the formation program, describing the program as “national” because it supported formation in other dioceses beyond the Washington, DC area. He also served as President, National Association of Permanent Deacon Directors.

Rev. Eugene Marino, SSJ was Spiritual Director for the Class of 1971, who was subsequently elevated to bishop and directed the USCCB’s Committee on Formation of Permanent Deacons.

The Archdiocese of Washington Class of 1971 with Cardinal O’Boyle and Very Rev Eugene Marino, SSJ with the then 16 new permanent deacons. Next is Deacon Americus Roy, the first African American Permanent Deacon, ordained with 5 other men for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

What did The Josephites do?  Priests, seminarians and brothers were actively engaged in parishes and the surrounding neighborhoods. They engaged men and in conversations about ministry. Once the program was established, men from the program traveled around the country, according to Bernadine Conrad, whose husband Deacon Joseph Conrad was among the men who traveled in search of vocations in African American communities and beyond. They were men from the neighborhood; Earl Coleman lived around the corner from my family. I went to school with Hiram Haywood’s daughters, and Joseph Conrad sang in the parish choir with my older siblings.

Vocations beget vocations. Riding with his father to visit the sick, Deacon Joe Curtis, Jr., followed his dad, Deacon Joseph Curtis, Sr., Class of 1971, into diaconal ministry. Deacon George Begg, also from the Class of 1971, has a son, Father Christopher Begg, who taught at Catholic University and in the Permanent Deacon Formation Program. Most Rev Barry Knestout and Rev Thomas Knestout are the sons of Deacon Thomas Knestout, Class of 1975, who followed Very Rev Robert Kearns as Formation Director. Msgr. John Enzler, who has pastored several parishes in Washington and recently retired as President of Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of Washington, is the son of Deacon Clarence Enzler, Class of 1972. Father Patrick Smith is the son of Deacon Anthony Smith, Class of 1991.

In writing about the history of the Permanent Diaconate, the late Rev Frank Hull, SSJ wrote there were 7 African Americans among the 16 men in the Class of 1971: Deacons Earl Coleman, Joseph Conrad, Joseph Curtis, Sr., Hiram Haywood, John Hill, Bernard Johnson, and James Quander who came from Josephite parishes. They are the first, but they are not the only men from African American communities to engage in ministry because of their close association with The Josephites.

Just as the Black Catholic Young Adults are convening with their contemporaries, perhaps we might join them to learn how The Josephites could recruit a class in which 33% of those ordained were from African American communities, and they recruited beyond their parish neighborhoods in a national program to attract men to ordained ministry. Perhaps we should remember the advice of a pastor I know who leads the congregation at a former Josephite parish. Let’s remember to RE-MEMBER our parishes and find vocations. The solution for the future of our Church lies in understanding the history that has brought us thus far on our way.