The last decade of the 18th century brought to Baltimore two groups, both of whom assumed major roles in the development of missionary work among the colored people of America. The French Revolution effected even this hemisphere. Its direct effect was in San Domingo while it had an indirect effect in the refugees that it sent to American shores. The first group of refugees, who came in 1791 were perhaps one of the most welcome and influential additions the American Church ever received, the Sulpician Fathers. The second group arrived two years later. It comprised 1000 white and 500 colored refugees from San Domingo, fleeing from the unsettled government and the revolutionary times that has come to their island. Both groups were French-speaking, so it was logical that the San Domingans sought the spiritual ministrations of the priests, with whom they shared a common tongue. The chapel at St. Mary’s Seminary became the center for the refugees. There the Negros from San Domingo found men willing to devote time to sacramental ministrations and catechetical instructions. The Rev. Louis W. Dubourg, future Bishop of New Orleans, began giving the Negroes catechetical instructions in July of 1796. This laid the remote foundation for the first Negro parish in the United States. The Chapelle Basse at the Seminary became the center of worship for many of the Negroes. At the same time the Abbé Jean Moraville aslo conducted services in St. Peter’s Church at early hours for the Negroes of the city whose long hours of work prevented their attendance at Chapelle Basse.
The building begun in 1836 and opened in 1837 as the First Universalist Church. It was damaged in the great flood of 1837. In 1839 bankruptcy forced its sale, and it became an assembly and lecture hall. It served as the meeting place for the Whig Convention of 1844 which nominated Henry Clay for the Presidency, the Democratic Convention of 1844 which nominated General Cass, and, more dramatically, as the assembly hall for an attempt to put Maryland into the Confederacy on May 13, 1861. The guns of General Ben Butler bearing down from Federal Hill put short shrift to this attempt. In the same year it became a church for the German Lutherans, until it was purchased on October 10, 1863 by Father O’Connor, S.J. The Very Rev. Henry B. Coskery, the Administrator of the Archdiocese after the death of Archbishop Francis P. Kenrick and before the arrival of the new Archbishop, Martin J. Spalding, dedicated the new church on February 21, 1864. The building was described by the Baltimore American of the time:
Here came four missionary priests for the Negroes, together with their Superior, the Very Rev. Herbert Vaughan, from the Missionary College of St. Joseph at Mill Hill near London. However, they were sent by the Sacred Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith and this at the command of the Supreme Pontiff. On the following Sunday, which was 10th of December, they were solemnly received by me and inaugurated in the Church of St. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit Fathers giving it up so that during two or three years they might take care of this church which already had been bought for the Negroes by Rev. Father Michael O’Connor, S.J., formerly Bishop of Pittsburgh, who gathered money for this task from the faithful, with eat zeal and labor.
Father Cornelius Dowling became the first Josephite Pastor, and under his direction, a Night School and Lending Library was opened on February 5th, 1872, and at a slightly a later date, a modified industrial school was attempted, though it was not of long duration. On March 1st, 1872 a chapel was opened in South Baltimore on Leaden Hall Street under the title of the Chapel of the Sacred Heart. It was only in use for a few years when financial difficulties forced it to close. A ‘widows Home’ on Front street was attempted, and the work was subsequently taken over by the Little Sisters of the Poor. The first enthusiasm was chilled by the early death from Typhoid Fever of Father Dowling on August 9, 1872. Father James Noonan became the pastor until 1877. At that time, he joined the Jesuits and worked in Jamaica, B.W.I. until his health broke down, finally dying at Georgetown, D.C. in 1915. During his term of office, the church was extensively redecorated. The distinctive portico and wide entrance were removed, and the structure was made to resemble St. Ignatius’ Church as nearly as possible. In 1895 four missions in Prince George County at Marlborough, Piscataway, RosaryVille and St. Ignatius, were taken under the care of St. Francis Xavier’s priests. Since it was found that these were becoming predominantly white missions, the work was turned over to the diocese after four years. From St. Francis Xavier Church, priests went to take over the Negro Mission in Louisville, Kentucky in 1873 and in Charleston, South Carolina in 1875.
The first American among the Mill Hill Fathers became pastor after Father Noonan entered the Jesuits. He was Father John Slattery, who remained as pastor until 1884, when he left to begin the first mission in Virginia at Richmond. During his term of office, the mission in south Baltimore was once more attempted, and resulted in the formation of St. Monica’s parish. He also began a foundling home in the parish which eventually become St. Elizabeth’s Home. Under his urging Franciscan Sisters came from Mill Hill to staff the institution in December of 1881. In 1881 also, priest went from St. Francis Xavier’s to take over the Church of St. Augustine in Washington, DC. In 1883, Father John H. Greene, associate for years with parish, wrote in St. Joseph’s Advocate, which he published from there:
It takes a denizen of the Monumental city to realize the dangerous task of creeping up or down in frosty weather the terrible hill slopes of upper Baltimore, the steepest of which is perhaps that abutting on this Church with its angel of 60 degrees, and its every square foot like a block of glass veneered with slippery elm, defying Byron’s “perpendicular reptile” tocrawl an inch; yet every morning in midwinter the Divine magnet of the tabernacle attracts colored feet over this fearful impediment a full hour before sunrise! Nay, on holy days of obligation, when Mass is obligatory …, living streams pour down the terrible watershed to catch the 5 O’clock Mass, fully two hours before dawn!
Two of the boys in St. Francis School, Frank Roberts and Arnold Waters, and their home training, were singled out for praise at the commencement in June of 1883.
Father Charles J. Gieson, a native of Utrechi, Holland, was the subsequent pastor, from 1884 until his death in 1896. He established the Xavier Lyceum for the young colored men of the city. The second division of the parish took place during his time when St. Peter Claver’s parish was dedicated on September 9, 1888. He also extensively redecorated the church, during which the church was closed for several weeks in 1887. A mission in 1891 resulted in 1709 confessions being heard. A significant cause for rejoicing occurred in the parish on June 19th, 1891, when, at the closing of the Triduum in honor of St. Aloysius, Charles Randolph Uncles, served as Deacon at Vespers. He had been ordained a deacon that very morning. He was ordained to the priesthood on December 19, 1891, the first Negro to be ordained a priest in the United States, and was a former member of St. Francis Xavier’s parish, a product of its school and there on Christmas morning, 1891, he celebrated his first solemn Mass. Although he chose to become a member of the Baltimore Archdiocese when the separate American Society was set up in 1893, Father Gieson remained on as pastor of St. Francis Xavier until overwork and exhaustion caused his collapse and return home to die in 1896. For one year a Kentuckian, Father Thomas B. Donovan, the second superior General of the Josephite Fathers, was the pastor of St. Francis Xavier before going to Richmond to serve on the Virginia missions. For a short while in 1897, until his health broke down, a priest from the Archdiocese of Boston, who contributed generously to the work of the Negro missions, was in charge of the parish, Father Patrick J. Hally. After his return to Salem and Lowell, Massachusetts, his continued interest in the work of the Negro Missions resulted in many vocations to the Josephite Fathers, and the work that was not physically able to do himself he was able to accomplish through the others whom he sent in his place. A planter’s son from Pointe Coupe Parish, Louisiana, Father Pierre O. LeBeau, next took charge of the parish. He remained for almost a year, before returning to his native state to become the pioneer Josephite Missionary of Louisiana, eventually having the town of Petite Prairie renamed in his honor as Lebeau, Louisiana. Father Joseph Butsch was pastor for four years for his first term at St. Francis, until 1901, followed by Fathers Oliver Napoleon Jackson, Joseph A St. Laurent, Robert Carse and William Dunn. In 1911 Father Narcisse P. Denis, Massachusetts born of French Canadian stock began his pastorate of nine years.
The Golden Jubilee of the Parish was celebrated with solemnity on December 14, 1913, in the presence of Cardinal Gibbons, and another Josephite Father Charles Carroll, then a professor at the Epiphany College, as Deacon of the Mass. Cardinal Gibbons words of congratulation at that time were somewhat prophetic, for he said then: “let your work be such that those who come after you and in fifty years more, celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of this church, may rejoice, just as you have rejoiced, in the work of the fifty years that have gone before." One novel feature
of Father Denis pastorate was the trade school which he carried on in the basement of the rectory. Father Denis had had a hobby of printing and carpentry and in September of 1914 he began a school to teach these professions to the Negro boys of his parish. He had 26 pupils in his class in 1915. During his administration another parish was carved out of the Negro Mother-parish of Baltimore. This was St. Barnabas’ Church, which in 1931 was transferred to St. Pius’ Parish. In 1920 Father Denis was transferred to Richmond, and saw later service in Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. Father John A. Glancy, a native of Philadelphia, served as pastor from 1920 until his death by a heart attack after evening services on October 21, 1923. Father Joseph Butsch, born at Elkhart, Indiana, returned for his second pastorate at St. Francis Xavier’s. Father Butsch was well known for his writings on the Catholic Missionary effort among the Negroes, being a contributor to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Catholic Historical Review and other publications. Father Butsch was called to his reward from St. Francis on July 30, 1926. An English-born Josephite, who has been torpedoed on Laconia in 1917, and subsequently served as a Red Cross Chaplain with the American Forces in France, Father Joseph L. Wareing took charge of the parish in 1926-1927. For three years, until 1930, Father Charles Carroll, well known for his gracious powers of oratory, was the pastor of old St. Francis.
Father Thomas Duffy, aided at times by Fathers Timothy Sullivan and John T. Gillard, was the pastor during the years of transition from the old to the ‘new St. Francis.’ When Baltimore made plans to construct the viaduct, old St. Francis stood in the way, at least the rectory and school did, and it was necessary to begin looking for a new site. The Madison Square Methodist Episcopal Church at the northeast corner of Caroline and Eager Streets was purchased by Father Duffy. Hard times were very much present for the Church, since the city plans for the viaduct became enmeshed in political wrangles, and no payments were forthcoming for the old St. Francis Xavier rectory and school property. In the summer of 1933 the financial matters were finally straightened out with the city and the move to the new church could take place. The new pastor, appointed in 1933, Father Arthur Flanagan, noted for his geniality and charity, opened the church on October 29th, the Feast of Christ the King, and the Church was solemnly dedicated by Archbishop Curley on December 3, 1933; Feast day of St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of the church. Mass continued to be said for several years at the old St. Francis on Sundays and Holy Days, but eventually in 1941 it was sold to become parking lot. There was much nostalgia among the parishioners at the time of the move, although it was eased somewhat by the architects and builders in remodeling the new structure. The three sided gallery, the altar, the altar rail, the Stations of the Cross, the window of St. Anthony, shrines and statues and other familiar objects which one had looked on in the old St. Francis, were present in the new. The first confirmation took place in the new church on June 17, 1934, when Auxiliary Bishop John McNamara confirmed a class of 233, among them 54 adult converts from St. Francis Xavier’s parish.
Father Charles Winckler became the pastor in 1936, and during his time two catechetical centers were opened. These were effective enough so that in the confirmation class of May 15, 1938, of the 180 confirmed, sixty were converts. From 1942 to 1944 Father Michael O’Neill was the pastor, during whose term of office the former St. Anthony’s Orphanage was converted into the present
school in 1943. Father O’Neill was followed by Father John Albert. Father Albert 1944-1948 began the mission at Turner Station, offering Mass in the recreation hall of the project. He also bought the ground for the Cherry Hill Mission. From 1948 to 1954, Father Joseph McKee, hero of the Dixie disaster, when the hurricane wrecked liner foundered off the Florida Keys in 1935 was the pastor of the parish. From 1954 to 1960 Father Henry Offer energetically conducted the affairs of the parish. He was able to report eighty-five persons being baptized in one day, June 12, 1955, in the oldest Negro parish in the United States, which since 1871 had recorded almost 12,000 baptisms. Father Offer built the Church at Turner station during his administration. During 1960 and 1961 Father Francis Cassidy served as the shepherd of the flock, being followed in 1961 by the present driving by the present driving force of the parish, Father Harry J. Maloney.
The history of a parish is a cold and remote thing, with dates, names and buildings. It can never present the true story of the parish, the untold and untellable sufferings and sacrifices of priests and people, the steady drive to do more for those who are fellow members in the mystical body of Christ. Words cannot express the consolation of returning to the sacraments those who have been long away from them, the meaning of the time and effort given by the generous souls who participated in the parish organizations, the daily devotion of the Sisters and teachers in preparing the youth of the parish to enter, well prepared, into the battle of life. The story can only be told in the results. Baltimore’s Black Catholics are the result of the efforts of the Mother Church, St. Francis Xavier. God knows the good accomplished, and the parishioners have a proud heritage to keep high and carry on in time and in eternity.
Father Louis Dubourg was the first priest known to have devoted special attention consistently to a Negro congregation. On his departure for New Orleans in 1815, the work was turned over to Father Tessier, who for thirty-one years looked after the Negroes’ spiritual interests. In 1827 he was aided by another Sulpician, Father James Nicholas Joubert de la Muraille, who has a career as a soldier, a tax collector and a San Domingo refugee behind him before entering the Priesthood. Finding it almost impossible to instruct his young charges due to their lack of education, Father Jourbert received permission to start a school. He discussed his plans with three colored ladies, one from Cuba and two from San Domingo. Together they originated the first group of colored Sisters in the United States. When these ladies were joined by another San Domingan, they took their first promises on June 3, 1829 to form the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
In 1836, the Oblate Sisters built a chapel on Richmond street, where their convent and academy were located. The colored congregation transferred from St. Mary’s Seminary to this new chapel, and this then became, for all practical purposes, the parish church of the original colored congregation. As far as it is known, this was the first church structure exclusively for the use of colored Catholics in the United States.
On the death of Father Joubert in 1843, the direction of the Oblate community and the care of the semi-parish attached to their convent were entrusted to the Redemptorist Fathers in a general way, and in October of 1847 under the particular care of Father Anawander. In 1857, the basement of St. Ignatius’s Church was given over to the increasing congregation, under the title of the ‘Chapel of Blessed Peter Claver.’ Father Peter Louis Miller, S.J. became the pastor. His efforts and his devotion to his work attracted the attention of Father Michael O’Connor, S.J., who has resigned from Bishopric of Pittsburgh a few years previously in order the Jesuits. Father O’Connor visited many Baltimore families and was able to collect about six thousand dollars. This enabled the Jesuits to buy an historical old building on the corner of Calvert and Pleasant Streets.
On March 8, 1865, Father Miller opened a free school for girls which was conducted at the Oblate Sisters Convent, and slightly later a boys’ school was also begun in the basement of the church. The Jesuits carried on the work until December 10, 1871, when a new religious community of men arrived in America to devote itself to work among the Negro race.
Under the Episcopate of Archbishop Martin J. Spalding, the hierarchy of the American Church had pleaded for help in this work at the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1866. When the future cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Father Vaughan, sought a mission field for the first priests of his new community, the Mill Hill Fathers, Pope Leo XIII and the Propaganda in Rome requested them to undertake the work of the Negro Missions in the United States. The first band of four priests, Fathers James Noonan, Cornelius Dowling, Charles Vigneront and James Gore, together with their founder Father Herbert Vaughan sailed from England in the company of Father Michael O’Connor, S.J.
They were entrusted with the charge of St. Francis Xavier’s parish at Vespers on a December Sunday of 1871. Under the date of December 5, 1871, Archbishop Martin Spalding had recorded in his Journal:
The entrances, vestibules and walls of the interior have been painted in a pure white, the woodwork drab; whilst the outside is of a delicate plum color, with the window-casings, about forty in number, in bright green … there is a grand altar and two side altars, galleries, and robing rooms still further east … The grand floor contains six rows of pews, 116 in all, and the three galleries, 57 making a total of 173, with a capacity of one thousand comfortable sittings. On the grand altar is a superior painting of the crucifixion which has a fine effect. The choir, led by Mrs. Julia Briscoe, consists of a number of fine voices.