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First African-American priest gets his due

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By Jacques Kelly, Baltimore Sun

A few weeks ago, in response to a column about downtown Baltimore’s Seton Hill, Jerilyn Manning gave me a call. She told me that I had missed a good story. She was so right.

She is the event coordinator for the Charles R. Uncles Senior Plaza at 607 Pennsylvania Ave. I caught up with Manning and Uncles Plaza this week. It was a revelation — how an 1893 Roman Catholic seminary, St. Joseph’s, had been transformed into a residence for senior citizens.

The Rev. Charles R. Uncles was the first African-American to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest. The son of a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad mechanic, he and his story made national news. The New York Times covered his ordination in 1891.

“His name and his story needs to be told,” Manning said as she walked me through the former chapel where Uncles celebrated Masses in the 1890s. That chapel is now a multipurpose room used by residents of the building. Its fancy arched ceiling is well preserved.

I first learned of the Uncles story nearly 40 years. My teacher was the Rev. Peter Hogan, a member of the Josephite Order, who held forth in the basement of an amazing priests’ residence at Calvert and Biddle streets. The whole cellar was Father Hogan’s archives. He was a merry soul, and you could not leave the place without staying for a bountiful lunch. The priests there had a good dining room and even better cooks.

I wrote about Father Uncles in 1972. His name surfaces from time to time in black history exhibits. I missed the fact that the old seminary building where he taught briefly has been named for him. Photos of him hang in the lobby. There are also old pictures of St. Joseph’s Seminary’s high Victorian decor.

I can see why the old St. Joseph’s Seminary has encountered competition with all the other religious shrines in Seton Hill. There is the Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton House and the St. Mary’s Seminary Chapel. There is a public park and an attractive new visitors center. The Oblate Sisters of Providence do a good job of telling the story of their founder, Mother Mary Lange, who started her order in tiny St. Mary’s Court. Her Oblates were the first U.S.-based religious order of women of color.

This neighborhood was something of the Vatican City of Baltimore a century ago. Hundreds of priests studied in Seton Hill.

Much overlooked is St. Joseph’s Seminary, which shares a weathered brick wall with the larger St. Mary’s park. The Baltimore Sun reported that about 10,000 people visited the building when its doors opened Dec. 8, 1893. Cardinal James Gibbons blessed the seminary in the morning. Father Uncles served as deacon at the pontifical Mass that day. The celebrant was Bishop Alfred Curtis. The paper’s account noted there was a chemistry laboratory in the basement, as well as machinery for generating electricity.

Father Uncles, who was called “Daddy” by his many students, was a teaching priest and gifted Latin, Greek and English instructor. He taught young seminarians for many years at the old Epiphany Apostolic College in Walbrook. Epiphany was housed in a rambling summer hotel on what would be Ellamont Street. The place looked like something in Cape May or Saratoga Springs. No trace of it remains.

Also vanished is the old St. Francis Xavier Church at Calvert and Pleasant streets. Father Uncles grew up in that parish, was confirmed there and said his first Mass on Christmas Day 1891. The church was later torn down and replaced by a small commercial building.

The Josephite Order moved off Pennsylvania Avenue many years ago. Father Uncles died in 1933 and was buried at the Calvary Cemetery in New Windsor, N.Y., not far from the seminary where he was then teaching.

The old seminary became the George Washington Carver apartments. Then, in 2004, it received a thorough and attractive renovation as a senior housing building under the auspices of the Druid Heights Community Development Corp. And along the way, Daddy Uncles got his due.

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Written by Symphony

December 4, 2010 at 12:20 pm

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