Word, sacrament, service: St. Vincent de Paul celebrates beloved pastor's retirement

February 26, 2017

By Erik Zygmont


Twitter: @ReviewErik

“If I had known this is what it took to get such a crowd, I would have retired (sooner),” said Father Richard Lawrence, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Baltimore for the last 43 years, at his retirement Mass Feb. 26.

The last part of the quip, delivered as he began his homily, was drowned out by the laughter of the congregation, which more than filled the 176-year-old church at Fayette and Front streets, “the oldest parish church in continuous use in Baltimore,” according to the parish website.

Not quite so old, but predating Father Lawrence – or “Father Dick,” as his parishioners have called him – is the parish's emphatic embrace of social justice causes. Indeed, the park adjacent to the church and fronting Fayette Street has become a well-known haven for the city's homeless and transient.

Parishioners greet Father Richard Lawrence at his Feb. 26 retirement Mass at St. Vincent de Paul in Baltimore. (Olivia Obineme/Special to the Review)

On Friday evenings, St. Vincent feeds that community, as well as anyone else who may be hungry or lonely, through a ministry offered with help from Our Lady of the Fields Parish in Millersville and other suburban partners.

The parish has engaged in the long game as well, with involvement in programs such as Beyond the Boundaries, an archdiocesan initiative which advocates for inclusive housing policy; BRIDGE, the Baltimore Regional Initiative for the Development of Genuine Equality; and tuition assistance for students of Ss. James and John School in East Baltimore, to name a few.

Such works, Father Lawrence emphasized, are to be expected of a parish community founded on “word, sacrament and service,” precepts that surface again and again at St. Vincent.

The Gospel for the day, taken from Matthew, focused on Jesus' counsel on the folly of worrying about worldly needs, such as what to eat, drink or wear:

“'All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides'” (Mt 6:32-33).

“If we do that, everything else will be added to us besides,” Father Lawrence echoed. “If we fail to do that, nothing else will matter.”

Father Richard Lawrence celebrates his retirement Mass Feb. 26 at St. Vincent de Paul in Baltimore. (Olivia Obineme/Special to the Review)

He posited that St. Vincent's continuing work in building up the kingdom of God will be a referendum on his own pastorship, determining “whether over 40 years I have built with straw or with stone.”

“What I've seen over the past five months has been very encouraging,” Father Lawrence said, referring to his convalescence following a fall in October.

He praised his parishioners' leadership and collaboration, which he had cultivated over four decades.

“We've reached the point where I'm not needed anymore.”

His retirement Mass was as much a homecoming; the congregation responded with applause to his booming “Good morning” at the start of the liturgy. Father Lawrence used a wheelchair and was assisted by numerous parishioners as well as concelebrant Father Charles Canterna, a city prison chaplain and priest in residence at St. Vincent.

“These past 40 years have been great fun; I've enjoyed them immensely,” Father Lawrence said as he wrapped up his homily, which was followed by a one-minute standing ovation. “I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you've done for me and with me over that time period.”

Pastoral associate Colleen McCahill, who has been directing the day-to-day activities of the parish, returned the sentiment, and during the Prayer of the Faithful petitioned “for our fearless and peerless pastor in his retirement.”
LaUanah King-Cassell, principal of Ss. James and John, called Father Lawrence “the wind beneath our wings.”

Father Richard Lawrence poses with those who came to celebrate his Feb. 26 retirement Mass at St. Vincent de Paul in Baltimore. (Olivia Obineme/Special to the Review)

“He's been so supportive and a strong believer in Catholic education, particularly for children in the inner city,” she said. “We are so grateful for him and his leadership, his guidance and his support.”

Members of Father Lawrence's family, including his sister-in-law, Eleanor Lawrence, widow of his late brother, Gene, and his four nieces, attended the Mass.

“He's a very special priest with a very unique approach to church and to people,” Eleanor Lawrence said. “That's why he's been here 40 years.”

“Uncle Rich is the kind of priest that keeps me Catholic,” said Beth Tarantula, one of the nieces. “Uncle Rich is what we call him – we don't know who 'Father Dick' is,” she added.

Note: This article covers Father Lawrence's Feb. 26 retirement Mass. A more in-depth piece about his retirement will follow.

Also see:

Legendary city pastor, caretaker of ‘homeless park,’ reflects after 48 years as active priest

With one conspicuous absence, St. Vincent de Paul Parish celebrates 175th

A Parish and Its Pastor: A Perfect Fit

Stoops family reaches out to city’s homeless
Put a -30- on the Printers’ Mass

Put a -30- on the Printers’ Mass