Monday, November 09, 2009

First black Roman Catholic priest ordained in US rests in peace in New Windsor

Half-hidden under a low bush in New Windsor's Calvary Cemetery, with the name unreadable until you pull away some branches, lies the headstone of the Rev. Charles Uncles, the first black man to be ordained a Catholic priest in the United States.

It's in a plot reserved for the Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart — priests dedicated to serving black Americans.

Uncles was born Nov. 8, 1859, in Baltimore, Md., to Lorenzo and Anne Marie Buchanan Uncles. His father was a B&O Railroad worker and his mother, a dressmaker. Those were more than decent positions at a time when slavery was still legal and widespread throughout the South.

A clue as to how they got those jobs might be found in a New York Times story of Dec. 19, 1891, covering Uncles' remarkable ordination: It described him as a "light mulatto." It's possible, in other words, that his parents were so light-skinned as to be able to pass for white.

The family attended St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church in East Baltimore. Uncles apparently was a brilliant student, and after graduating from high school, he attended St. Hyacinthe College in Quebec. He became fluent in Greek, Latin and French and was valedictorian of his class.

In a story in the fall issue of the society's magazine, The Josephite Harvest, Christopher Gaul notes that, upon his return to the U.S., Uncles applied to study at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore.

To determine whether or not to admit him, the school's administration decided to hold a referendum among the all-white seminarians. Remarkably, when the votes were counted, the students had agreed unanimously to admit Uncles.

Uncles celebrated his first Mass on Christmas Day 1891, at his family's old church, St. Francis Xavier. Two years later, Uncles made his most lasting contribution: With four other priests, he founded the Society of St. Joseph.

It wasn't as if no one had tried before to evangelize black Americans. In 1871, the Rev. Herbert Vaughan of England had brought a few priests from London to work with the 4 million newly emancipated slaves in the U.S.

But there were problems.

Millions of already Catholic immigrants began streaming into the country around that time, many of whom wanted the services of a priest. And Vaughan himself, as archbishop of Westminster, had duties to perform in England. It was clear that an American-based group was needed to work exclusively with black Americans.

So in 1893, with Uncles' help, five priests formed the Society of Saint Joseph.

From 1893 on, Uncles taught Latin and Greek at Epiphany Apostolic College, which served as a prep school for Baltimore's seminarians. In 1925, the college was relocated to New Windsor.

Why the Hudson Valley?

The Rev. Edward Mullowney of Baltimore, a church historian, said the main reason was easy access to New York City, where property was too expensive for the society to buy.

On July 20, 1933, at 74, Uncles died at the college and was buried there.

When the property, now the grounds of Heritage Junior High School in New Windsor, was sold in 1975, the graves of all 15 priests who'd been buried there — including Uncles — were relocated to nearby Calvary Cemetery.

Gaul's story notes the irony that, although Uncles taught "hundreds of young men who would "» go out and evangelize African Americans," he was never directly involved in mission work. He remained a teacher of aspiring seminarians all his life.

Today, on the 150th anniversary of Uncles' birth, a statue of Joseph holding the infant Jesus looks out peacefully over the graves of the Hudson Valley's Josephites, including their famous pioneer.

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