Calvin Lee Torbert, a resident of Charles R. Uncles Senior Plaza, Oblate Sister of Providence Reginald Gerdes and Josephite Father Edward J. Chiffriller pause June 10 outside the senior housing in Baltimore named for the first black ordained a priest in the United States. (CR Staff/Paul McMullen)
City block renamed in honor of Father Uncles
Appreciation for the building’s namesake continues to grow at Charles R. Uncles Senior Plaza.
It is located in the 600 block of Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue, which was renamed “Fr. Charles R. Uncles Way” June 10, in recognition of the first black to be ordained a priest in the United States.
The aforementioned four-story structure abuts St. Mary’s Park in the Seton Hill neighborhood, a hub of Catholicism since the late 18th century. It has provided low-income senior housing since 2002, but the building’s significance, as the former home of St. Joseph Seminary, remains evident.
“We’re still finding history here,” said Jerilyn Manning, senior event coordinator for the community. “We found this when we began to clean up for this day.”
Manning pointed above a stairwell in the fourth-floor community room, to a painting of a chalice on the ceiling.
She shared that discovery during a reception, which followed the unveiling of the street sign and remarks by, among others, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who read from a proclamation declaring it Father Charles R. Uncles Day in Baltimore, and Father Edward J. Chiffriller, who was in his final week as superior general of the Baltimore-based Josephites, an order Father Uncles helped found.
A member of Baltimore’s St. Francis Xavier, the first black Catholic parish in the United States, Father Uncles began his seminary studies in Canada, completed them in Baltimore, and was ordained in 1891 by Cardinal James Gibbons.
According to Deborah Holly, an Africentric columnist for The Catholic Review, Father Uncles was one of five Mill Hill Missionaries to establish the Josephites “as an American religious community in 1893.” He was a college instructor, training missionaries in Baltimore and Newburg, N.Y.
As Holly has written, the Josephite fathers and brothers continue to “provide for the spiritual, educational and social needs of African Americans.”
“Father Uncles was in the first class of seminarians here,” Father Chiffriller noted of St. Joseph Seminary, which moved to Washington, D.C. “Forty-two percent of our members are African-American, African or of Haitian descent. Father Uncles planted that seed, and that seed is continuing to bear fruit.”
Clergy in attendance included Father Donald A. Sterling, pastor of New All Saints and one of the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s two black priests; Josephite Father Ray P. Bomberger, pastor of St. Peter Claver; and Father Samuel J. Lupico, retired.
Father Chiffriller also nodded toward Oblate Sisters of Providence Reginald Gerdes and Mary Charlotte. Their order continues to run St. Frances Academy, the first Catholic school opened to black children in the U.S.
City Councilman William C. Cole, who was guided by Jesuits at Loyola Blakefield and St. Joseph (Pa.) University, said the occasion “was humbling for me.”
“At the unveiling of the (street) sign, there were kids on bicycles,” Cole said. “They might be asking, ‘Who is Father Uncles?’ We need to make sure that we continue to tell his story.”