By George P. Matysek Jr.
It was one of the ugliest scenes in the history of the Baltimore City Council.
As Cardinal Lawrence Shehan began testifying Jan. 13, 1966, in favor of an open housing ordinance designed to break down color lines, a barrage of angry jeers drowned him out.
Cardinal Shehan, who had received a death threat earlier that day, failed to convince the council to support the bill. Although the measure died, federal laws would later be changed to prevent discrimination – partly a result of the trailblazing action of the cardinal and other religious leaders.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Cardinal Shehan’s groundbreaking pastoral letter on racial justice, a document that demanded an end to the last vestiges of discrimination that still existed in some parts of the local Catholic Church – no more segregated schools, parishes or hospitals – and “an end to distinctions of rank, place or treatment based on racial difference.”
In his letter, Cardinal Shehan insisted that racial justice must be applied not only to institutions, but to individuals throughout society.
“It must guide us in our personal relationships,” Cardinal Shehan said, “within our block, our neighborhood, our community; in our social and fraternal organizations; in the business we may conduct; in the labor unions to which we may belong; at work and at play; in all the circumstances of everyday life.”
Agnes Welch remembers when St. Edward School in West Baltimore was among several Catholic schools that treated blacks differently from whites.
“African-American children had to stand outside in the snow, cold and rain and wait for white children to enter the school first,” said Welch, a retired Baltimore City Council member who as a young woman worked at the school to help bring an end to discriminatory policies.
At Bon Secours Hospital, Welch said, African-American doctors were not hired and blacks weren’t welcome in the emergency room. The archdiocesan urban commission to which Welch belonged helped change those policies and others around the archdiocese.
After the publication of the letter, African-Americans began serving at the Catholic Center in Baltimore. Parishes such as St. Gregory the Great and St. Martin led the way in integration.
Cardinal Shehan relocated his residence from the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Homeland, then a restricted community, to what is now the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He joined fellow priests to witness Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech in Washington. The cardinal also gave his nod to clergy who protested the segregated Gwynn Oak amusement park.
Welch believes none of the progress made inside the church and throughout the city would have been possible without Cardinal Shehan’s leadership.
“It had a snowballing effect,” Welch said.
Beverly Carroll, former assistant director in the Secretariat for Cultural Diversity in the Church at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said it took “extreme courage” for the cardinal to speak up.
“I remember him saying it was the right thing to do,” said Carroll, who also served on the urban commission.
We’ve come a long way, but there is more to be done. Cardinal Shehan’s plea for understanding still rings true. Christ came into the world to save everyone, Cardinal Shehan said.
“…On the cross of Calvary, he shed his blood to redeem all of us from our iniquity – all, without any exception,” Cardinal Shehan wrote. “In our Christian eyes then, there is a fundamental bond that links us all together in the sight of God and in the order established by him. We have an essential duty in justice to recognize and to respect equally the rights of all men.”
Let’s live Cardinal Shehan’s legacy.
George P. Matysek Jr. is assistant managing editor of the Catholic Review.
March 21, 2013 CatholicReview.org