Remembering Baltimore’s black Catholic history

The 1843 death of Sulpician Father James Joubert, co-founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, was painfully felt in the black community. Archbishop Samuel Eccleston had no use for religious women of color and suggested that the Oblates return to the world and find employment in the better households of Maryland. The women opted to remain women religious. Archbishop Eccleston offered no religious assistance to the sisters. Again, black Catholics were required to sit in the balcony or the rear of the churches. The sisters walked from Richmond and Park Avenue to the Redemptorist church, St. James on Aisquith and Eager, for services. When St. John’s German Church was renovated and renamed St. Alphonsus, the sisters walked to Park Avenue and Saratoga. St. John Neumann noticed the sisters walking to church and decided to send some Redemptorists to say Mass and give retreats when possible. When Thaddeus Anwander was ordained, Neumann asked him to become the director of the Oblates. Archbishop Eccleston said, “What’s the use?” Father Anwander got down on his knees and begged to assume direction of the sisters. In the end, the archbishop granted the request.

In the 1850s under the direction of the Redemptorists, the convent chapel was enlarged to seat 500 persons. A school was built on Tyson Street to educate young black Catholic boys. A hall was added to the school so that the black Catholics could have a meeting place of their own. Property was bought in St. Michael’s parish for a school for black boys in East Baltimore. The Oblates conducted this school for the young men. The school enrollment grew, the number of black Catholics increased, sodalities were started and the number of Oblate Sisters increased. In 1857, Father Anwander was transferred to New Orleans, a very sad day for the black Catholic community. The Redemptorist Fathers served the community until 1860, when Archbishop Martin Spalding assigned the ministry to the Jesuit Fathers at St. Ignatius.

When the Jesuits took over the care of the black Catholic community, they converted the basement of St. Ignatius to a church for the new congregation. They called the facility “the Chapel of St. Peter Claver.” Jesuit Father Miller was the newly appointed pastor. In addition to ministering to the congregation, Father Miller was most interested in education. This priest did a lot to fund educational opportunities for black children. In the meantime, the former bishop of Pittsburgh, Rev. Michael O’Connor decided to become a Jesuit and was stationed in Baltimore. Father O’Connor began a campaign to raise funds to buy a building for black Catholics. The Universalist Church on the corner of Calvert and Pleasant was purchased and at last the black Catholics of Baltimore had a church they could call their own. The church, St. Francis Xavier, was dedicated in 1863.

Father Miller continued as pastor of the black congregation. His parish, St. Francis Xavier, was most active in social as well as religious ministries. They were the primary sponsors in supporting the orphans at St. Francis. This vibrant parish ministered to all the black Catholics in east and west Baltimore. It was from this parish that the first black man was trained and ordained a priest in the United States – his name: Josephite Father Charles Uncles. St. Francis Xavier also had the first black pastor in the Archdiocese of Baltimore – Josephite Father John Dorsey.

Archbishop Spalding was most concerned about evangelizing the newly freed slaves. It was he who petitioned the Vatican to set up a plenary council to discuss the post Civil War problems. Advocating for evangelizing the 4 million freed slaves, Archbishop Spalding said, “It is a golden opportunity for reaping a harvest of souls, which if neglected, may not return.” In 1871, with the help of Jesuit Father Michael O’Connor, Archbishop Spalding was able to influence the newly established Mill Hill Fathers of England to come to the America to evangelize the newly freed slaves. They did and that will be the topic of next week’s column.

Sister Reginald Gerdes is a historical researcher and an Oblate Sister of

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.