Josephites elect first black leader

WASHINGTON -- The Josephite Fathers and Brothers, 140 years after their founding in 1871 to serve the African-American community, elected their first black superior general in Father William Norvel.

Currently pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Washington, Father Norvel, 76, will serve a four-year term at the order's Baltimore headquarters.

Father Norvel had served as consultor general for the Josephites 1983-87, and as president of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, 1985-87. He is credited with starting the gospel choir movement in Washington and Los Angeles. He also opened a Josephite house of spiritual formation in Nigeria, where he served for five years. The house has been the source of a number of Josephite vocations.

"Having more black leadership in the church is fulfilling the dreams of many," Father Norvel said in remarks posted on the order's website. "My election shows that the Josephites feel that it's time that we have black leadership and they will support it."

A native of Pascagoula, Miss., Father Norvel was pastor of St. Peter the Apostle Parish in Pascagoula when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. "My church and my school were completely destroyed. My rectory and the convent were flooded with 4 feet of water," he said a few weeks after Katrina devastated much of the Gulf Coast.

For Father Norvel, one of the more uplifting moments in the aftermath of the hurricane came when he greeted volunteers from the North whom he likened to angels of mercy. That winter, he took part in a pulpit swap with St. Isidore Parish in Bloomingdale, Ill., raising more than $40,000 to help his Mississippi parishioners.

It was not the first heartbreak that Father Norvel encountered in his priestly ministry.

In 1998, he was serving as pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Baltimore, recognized as the oldest African-American parish in the United States. The parish was getting ready to celebrate its 205th anniversary when Shara Gaylord, 30, was shot once in the head and murdered as she emerged from her car to drop off her 3-year-old and four other children at a day care center housed in the parish complex, just minutes before morning Mass in the parish church.

That Sunday, Father Norvel directed his homily at the children. "Life is precious," he told them. "You must cherish life." He spoke of unconditional love for every man, woman and child, "even the drug addicts on the street who make us feel uncomfortable." It is, he said, "what God wants from us." He told them that "an ugly thing was done, but if we can learn from it, we can learn that love is more powerful."

In 2008, when Barack Obama became the first African-American to be elected U.S. president, Father Norvel commented that it was "the beginning of an incredible chapter in the annals of our American history."

"All of us are now called to wrap President Obama and his administration in prayer that the work the Lord has begun in him will be brought to perfection," he said in remarks before Obama's inauguration in 2009.

Also elected during the Josephites' June 13-17 general conference in Washington were Josephite Father Michael Thompson, 53, as vicar general, and Josephite Father Thomas Frank, 59, as consultor general.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here