Part 3: Mission in North America

For years the Archbishop of Baltimore had been appealing to Rome to consider the needs of the millions of people then being released from slavery and had more recently made his appeal to Herbert Vaughan.  Vaughan continued to petition the Pope for a mission field, mentioning, though not volunteering for, the African-American apostolate.  The matter was settled when he read the words of the missionary founder, Francois Libermann, that the salvation of African people depended on priests filled with the Spirit of the Lord.

In the autumn of 1871, Pius IX assigned Vaughan’s missionaries to Baltimore in Maryland and granted the founder and his men the title of “Apostolic Mis-sionaries’.  The pioneers were Cornelius Dowling, James Noonan, Joseph Gore and Charles Vigneront.  On 5 December they arrived in Baltimore, Maryland and were received officially by the Archbishop Martin John Spalding some days later at St. Francis Xavier Church which was to be their home. As the new year began, Vaughan consecrated the mission to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and named his missionaries ‘Josephites’. Father Dowling was appointed the first American provincial of the Josephite mission, and pastor of St. Francis Xavier church. The church was originally bought by Michael O'Connor (a former bishop of Pittsburgh and Erie) to serve the African-American community. The building was owned by the Jesuits, which ultimately led to a conflict. The church was heavily in debt supporting, in addition, an orphanage, school, and African-American sisterhood. The Jesuits agreed to permit the Josephites to assume management of everything including the debt. Moreover, the former would retain the right to reclaim and sell the property without conditions. This state of affairs was highly unsatisfactory to Vaughan, and, unfortunately, Bishop Spalding died in February 1872, before anything could be resolved.

When Vaughan set sail for England in June 1872, in Baltimore there was already a chapel, a school, a home for the aged poor, the beginnings of an industrial school and an inter-racial brotherhood.  The death of the well-disposed Archbishop Spalding shortly after the missionaries’ arrival had been a setback, though less serious than the loss of the leader Cornelius Dowling from typhoid fever after seven months on the mission. Father Dowling was to die of typhoid in August 1872. Vaughan then appointed James Noonan as his successor. Never happy with this commitment, Noonan was to endure as the mission's second provincial until October 1877, when Vaughan finally granted his release.

Vaughan would make a second visit to the U.S. in January 1875, bringing with him a group of new priests, including Canon Benoit, William Hooman, Frederick Schmitz, John Greene, and Richard Gore, brother of James Gore, as well as Brother Edward Murphy. At this time, Vaughan consolidated connections between the American mission and Mill Hill by drawing up official rules for the Josephite missionaries to live and work by.

Vaughan recommended his missionaries to look to the Baptists for inspiration in their work.  They decided on a very emotional approach, building on the Afro-American flair for lively song and dance.  They met some difficulties in this.   These followed from their commission to dedicate themselves exclusively to the care of the Afro-Americans.  The missions were initially considered to be a segregated part of the Church.  The first difficulty arose from the success of their emotional approach.  The liturgies in their churches were so lively that they attracted many whites as well.  This led to friction with the white parishes.  Catholic groups who objected to the Mill Hill approaches nick-named them ‘those Nigger Priests’.  The second difficulty arose from the missionaries’ perception of what must be their ultimate aim- the integration of the white and black communities in the Church.

At first, they addressed this latter difficulty head-on.  They tried to establish an interracial brotherhood.  This experiment proved a disaster.  So they turned their attention to recruiting Afro-American clergy who would be integrated into the Society.  To achieve this aim, they sent a number of young lads to be educated at St. Peter’s Apostolic School in Liverpool, England.  Unhappily, only one persevered, Fr. Charles Uncles, the first Afro-American Mill Hill priest.

A constant problem with the mission was its financial support.  It had to be established on a sound, economic, local footing.  This was achieved in the 1880s when the American Hierarchy was persuaded to make the Afro- and native-American missions a national responsibility.

Another factor that militated against the achievement of stability in the American missions was the expansion of the Society’s involvement in India and the Far East.  Friction had arisen between the American section and the Society headquarters when members were withdrawn from America to meet the Society’s obligations in other parts of the world.  In 1884, Fr. John F. Slattery wrote to Vaughan suggesting a way out of this difficulty.  Separate Society training facilities should be established in America.  This would bring an increase in the number of members and insure more stability of personnel on the individual missions.   As an outcome of this, Epiphany Apostolic School and St. Joseph’s Major Seminary were opened in Baltimore in 1888 and 1889.  Despite these efforts, tensions were not relieved. In 1892, Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore offered to accept the missionaries who wished to be released from Mill Hill, and the following year, 1893, Vaughan gave his consent.  John Slattery became the superior of the independent St. Joseph’s Society of the Sacred Heart, or ‘Josephites’, dedicated to the service of African-Americans. The Mill Hill Missionaries withdrew and was not to return to America until after the Second World War.  Between 1893 and 1948, they were involved in some very specific tasks.  Thus they provided some assistance towards the establishment of the Maryknoll Fathers.  For some years, they acted as stop-gaps to the Josephite mission in the Caribbean.