- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 15, 2006

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King would have liked what he saw yesterday at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Alexandria, Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde told worshippers in the first black parish in Northern Virginia.

“He heard God’s voice to call out for justice to all people, regardless of their race, their color,” Bishop Loverde told nearly 270 parishioners.

It was the fifth consecutive year that the 65-year-old bishop came to St. Joseph to commemorate King, the assassinated Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who would have celebrated his 77th birthday yesterday.

“This may be a small church, but it holds a big heart and a big spirit,” Bishop Loverde said. “Our society is stained and shattered by violence, by racism, by inequality. … People can live together in peace, in harmony. … It is important that we show solidarity to our brothers and sisters.”

Founded in 1915 by the Josephite Fathers — a religious community founded in 1892 to minister to black people — the church was built the following year with funds raised through donations, dances, bake sales, picnics and suppers.

In 1967, the parish welcomed other races to join.

The parish has a reputation for friendliness.

“This church feels just like my church in my hometown in Huntsville, Alabama,” said choir member Stephana Miles. “It is so friendly.”

Choir-chorale member Doreen Hamilton, 45, lives a few minutes from a church in Prince William County, but drives 45 minutes to attend Mass at St. Joseph in Alexandria.

“I drive all the way here for the spirit,” she said. The church is at 701 N. Columbus St.

Parishioners travel from as far away as Winchester, Va., and Fort Washington, Md., to attend weekly Mass at St. Joseph.

William McBride, 68, a Korean War veteran who has attended St. Joseph for 60 years, lives in Fredericksburg, Va., and he said he has no complaints about driving to St. Joseph on Thursday night for choir practice and on Sunday for worship services.

“If it was 100 miles away, I would still come,” Mr. McBride said.

Much credit for the founding of St. Joseph is given to Katharine Drexel, a nun who was born into a wealthy white Philadelphia family.

Sister Drexel wanted to minister to children of Indians and blacks.

Sister Drexel donated an estimated $8,000 for the building of the rectory.

She also provided a stained glass window situated in the peak of the steep roofs among the black wooden supports. Above the window’s image of Jesus Christ on the cross are the words “Our Parents.”

Sister Drexel died in 1955 and was canonized a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2000.

Now, in a rear corner of the sanctuary stands a statue of Saint Drexel. She wears glasses and holds a black child in her left arm and an Indian girl by her right arm.

There are now 67 parishes in the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, which encompasses 21 counties and seven cities in Northern Virginia.

There are 400,539 registered Catholics in the Arlington Diocese.

About 3 million — or 4 percent — of the 68 million U.S. Catholics are black. Worldwide, the 270 million Catholics of African descent comprise about 25 percent of the 1 billion Catholics.

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