Last week I wrote about the question of the first black Catholic priest in America. I said the answer to that question depended upon who you asked. I now know that the answer to the question depends upon how the you ask the question! This is because there has emerged yet a third contender for “first black priest”.
First a little personal background: I don’t think I ever saw a black Catholic priest until I was well into my adulthood. I guess I assumed that there were some somewhere; I just never thought that much about it. But when I was in my 20s, my dad began the practice of sending me a calendar every year from an order of priests called the Josephites. This is an order of priests, officially known as the St. Joseph Society of the Sacred Heart, formed in 1893 to minister to African-Americans. The man given credit for leading the founding of the Josephites was Father Charles Randolph Uncles, a native of Baltimore. Sunday, November 8, 2009, marked the 150th anniversary of Father Uncles’ birth.
Father Uncles is the third contender for the title of first black priest in America. You may recall from the previous article, that Bishop James Healy and Father Augustus Tolton are the first two contenders for the title. We resolve that issue by deciding that Bishop Healy, descendant of an Irishman and a slave woman, under the “rules” of racial identity may deserve the title of first black American priest, although he would not have wanted it. But Father Tolton, descendant of two slaves, is entitled to be called the first black priest in America born of slave parents. In the minds of some, this may make Father Tolton the more “authentic” first “black priest in America.”
So where does Father Uncles fit in? His parents, Lorenzo Uncles and Annie Marie Buchanan, both had been slaves. Charles Randolph Uncles was ordained in 1891 –after both Healy and Tolton had been ordained. But remember, it depends upon how you ask the question. Uncles was ordained in New York City. Both Healy and Tolton, though Americans, could not attend seminary in the United States because of racism and therefore were ordained outside the United States. So Father Uncles rightfully can be called the “first black priest ordained in America.” [It should be noted, speaking of the “rules” of racial identity, that Charles Uncles and his parents were described as being light enough to pass for white.]
The Times story noted:
The congregation gathered to witness and participate in ceremonies was more than usually large and included many of the best colored people of the city. A special reason for the presence of the latter was that the first man of their race to be ordained a priest in the United States and that he was to have that high honor bestowed upon him by the Cardinal Archbishop himself–the primate of episcopacy of the country.
Lorenzo and Annie Uncles were Catholics. They and their family attended Mass at St. Frances Xavier Church in Baltimore which was, as the New York Times put it, “a church for colored people, but from which whites were not excluded.”
As a young man, Charles was an altar boy at St. Frances Xavier. He graduated number one in his high school class. After that, he taught in the Baltimore County public schools until he was 25 years old. During this same period of time, he was being tutored by a priest from St. Joseph’s seminary(for black men only) in Baltimore. Finally in 1883, Charles Uncles went to St. Hyacinth’s College in Canada, graduating in 1888. Back in Baltimore he then entered St. Joseph’s seminary. But he applied to attend classes at St. Mary’s Seminary which was for white men. The faculty of St. Mary’s put the matter to a vote of the seminarians. They were unanimously in favor of admitting Charles Uncles. And so it was that three years later, he was ordained a priest. He began teaching at the Epiphany Apostolic College, which was then located in Baltimore. In 1925, the college moved to New Windsor, New York, and Father Uncles moved also.
He died on July 20, 1933 at the college, and is buried there.
Coming up: The Josephite Priests
November 22, 2009 Sunday at 10:06 pm