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Cardinal James A. Hickey, 1920-2004

A Steadfast Servant of D.C. Area's Needy

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2004; Page A01

Cardinal James Aloysius Hickey, 84, a champion of orthodoxy in church dogma and passionate provider of services to the poor during his 20 years as head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, died yesterday at a Northeast nursing home after several years of declining health.

The tall, soft-spoken cardinal with midwestern roots entered the seminary at age 13 and was a priest for more than 50 years. Shunning a high profile, he nevertheless became one of the most influential behind-the-scenes leaders in the American Catholic Church. At his death, he was the second eldest of 14 U.S. cardinals.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was at Cardinal James Hickey's bedside. (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

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He was appointed to lead the Washington archdiocese, which includes more than half a million Roman Catholics and encompasses the District and five Maryland counties, by Pope John Paul II in 1980. As archbishop, Hickey created the metropolitan area's most extensive nongovernmental network of social services, an achievement widely recognized as his most important legacy.

"He always showed the face of the church to the poor," Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, Hickey's successor as head of the archdiocese, said yesterday. "For me, that . . . really summarized the whole kind of man and whole kind of vision that Jim Hickey had."

Hickey greatly expanded the archdiocese's services to refugees and to the homeless, mentally retarded and elderly. During his tenure, the archdiocese opened a hospice for AIDS patients and 14 homeless shelters -- the first was Mount Carmel House in Northwest Washington.

He also transformed Catholic Charities, the archdiocese's social services agency, from a traditional family support organization to one serving the afflicted, especially the homeless and indigent. The agency, which had a $2.7 million budget and a staff of 45 serving 10,000 people in 1980, now has a budget of $23 million and a staff of 350 assisting nearly 80,000.

"We serve the homeless," Hickey once said, "not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic. If we don't care for the sick, educate the young, care for the homeless, then we cannot call ourselves the church of Jesus Christ."

The slender, bespectacled Hickey, for whom a funeral Mass will be celebrated Saturday, also was one of the first U.S. bishops to recognize the seriousness of the church's problem with clergy sexual abuse of children. Most other bishops ignored the issue, taking action only after child abuse became a nationwide scandal in 2002. As early as the late 1980s, Hickey set up policies to heighten awareness of abuse and spot potential molesters.

"Hickey was one of the first, I would say perhaps the second, bishop I knew of who had mandatory study days and seminars for all of the priests in his diocese . . . on sexual abuse by clergy," recalled the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, an Air Force chaplain until recently and one of the first to warn church leaders of the hidden abuse problem.

"From the very beginning, he was listening," Doyle added. "I must say I was impressed by his openness and sensitivity. . . . I think his moves created an atmosphere that was much better than other dioceses . . . an atmosphere of openness."

Hickey's career also included ministering to migrant sugar beet workers in Michigan, acting as seminary rector in Michigan and Rome, attending sessions of the Second Vatican Council as an assistant to his bishop and serving as bishop of Cleveland. Eight years after being appointed to Washington, he was elevated to cardinal. He retired in 2000.

Hickey spent the early part of his career in a Catholic Church that was far more traditional and monolithic than it is today. The Second Vatican Council of the 1960s ushered in an era of dramatic change and reforms. With the 1978 election of Pope John Paul II, the church paused to catch its breath. During that period, Hickey emerged as a bulwark of institutional loyalty to Rome, developing close ties to the Vatican.

Emulating the pope's leadership model, Hickey mixed conservatism in church doctrine with deep concern for social justice and compassion for the poor. In a measure of the pope's regard for him, Hickey was invited to lead a retreat for the pope and his household in 1988.

Hickey, who chose for his episcopal motto "Teach the Truth in Charity," gave unqualified support to official church teachings on sometimes divisive issues, including abortion and homosexuality. He also took a hard line against theological dissent, delighting conservatives but sometimes alienating liberal Catholics.

"The most serious of my charges," Hickey once told an interviewer, "is maintaining the purity of church doctrine."

In 1987, Hickey, who was chancellor of Catholic University by virtue of his position as head of the Washington archdiocese, suspended theology professor Charles E. Curran because of his open dissent with the church's ban on contraception. That same year, Hickey forced Georgetown University to stop Dignity, an organization of Catholic gay men and lesbians, from celebrating Masses on the campus.

Beginning in the early 1980s, Hickey sought to stifle the ministry of a local nun and priest because of what he regarded as their ambiguous position on church teachings that homosexual activity is sinful. In 1999, the Vatican ordered the pair, School Sister of Notre Dame Jeannine Gramick and the Rev. Robert Nugent, to halt their ministries to gays; later, it ordered them to stop all public speaking on the matter.

Two years later, he complained about deviations from liturgical rules at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown, sending an auxiliary bishop to investigate the Jesuit-run parish. Hickey also halted archdiocesan funding for a nonprofit pregnancy crisis center in College Park after it declined to stop dispensing contraceptives.

Catholics who disagreed with Hickey's position on these issues, however, were inspired by him on other matters.

At the height of the civil war in El Salvador in the early 1980s, Hickey testified on Capitol Hill in opposition to U.S. military assistance to right-wing forces there. And shortly after two women he knew were slain by Salvadoran government forces in 1980, Hickey led a delegation of U.S. bishops to the White House to ask President Ronald Reagan to maintain his suspension of military aid to that country.

Acting on the pope's request for Catholics to oppose the death penalty, in early 2000 Hickey called on Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) to commute the death sentence of Eugene Colvin-El.

When the Rev. Michael R. Peterson, a 44-year-old priest and psychiatrist, was dying of AIDS in 1987, Hickey visited him regularly. He encouraged Peterson to let the nature of his illness be revealed after his death. When Hickey officiated at Peterson's funeral Mass, concelebrating it with 180 other priests, he announced the cause of Peterson's death. It was the first time that any senior U.S. church leader had publicly acknowledged a priest's death from AIDS.

The Washington archdiocese is the 16th largest in the country, with 550,000 Catholics. Nearly 200,000 are of Hispanic descent, and about 100,000 are African American. In addition to the District, the archdiocese includes Montgomery, Prince George's, Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties.

Hickey was the third leader of the archdiocese since it was separated from Baltimore in 1947; his predecessors were Cardinal Patrick A. O'Boyle, who died in 1987, and Cardinal William W. Baum, who now works in Rome.

Today, the archdiocese has 140 parishes -- 12 of them built under Hickey -- in which Masses are celebrated in 24 languages other than English, ranging from Spanish to Tagalog to American Sign Language.

The archdiocese's burgeoning Hispanic population was not overlooked by Hickey. He supported Spanish-language Masses, and the archdiocese's Spanish Catholic Center expanded its legal, medical and employment assistance to that group, serving more than 41,000 people annually at its three locations.

Another of his key legacies was his enduring support for the archdiocese's school system of more than 100 elementary and high schools, serving 34,000 students, 44 percent of them minority and 25 percent non-Catholic. Insisting that Catholic education was a priority, Hickey refused to close some financially troubled Catholic schools in the inner city.

Hickey, who had given priority to forming good priests, felt let down by two churchmen whom he had mentored early in their careers, according to associates of Hickey's. George Stallings was a student in Rome when Hickey met him and supported his wish to be a priest in the Washington archdiocese. But in 1990, Hickey suspended and then excommunicated Stallings after he established his own African American church

Hickey had also taken special interest in the career of the Rev. Eugene A. Marino, who became an auxiliary bishop in Washington and then archbishop of Atlanta. Marino stepped down in 1990 after news reports about his relationship with a woman.

James Aloysius Hickey was born Oct. 11, 1920, in Midland, Mich., into a devoutly religious and disciplined household. His father, James Peter Hickey, was a dentist who taught his son about charity by example, treating patients who could not pay during the Depression. His mother, Agnes Ryan Hickey, dressed her son well and sent him to St. Brigid Catholic School.

His only sibling was an older sister, Marie, who is deceased.

Even as a child, Hickey wanted to be a priest. In 1934 at age 13, he entered St. Joseph Minor Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich., and then attended Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, from which he graduated in 1942 as valedictorian. He obtained a degree in sacred theology from Catholic University in 1946 and that same year was ordained a priest in his home diocese of Saginaw, Mich.

In 1950, he moved to Rome, where he obtained degrees in canon law and theology. In 1951, he was named secretary to Bishop Stephen S. Woznicki of Saginaw. Six years later, he was appointed founding rector of St. Paul Seminary in Saginaw.

With Woznicki, he attended the Second Vatican Council in 1962 and 1963. In 1967, he was named auxiliary bishop of Saginaw. From 1969 to 1974, he was again in Italy as rector of the North American College in Rome, a prestigious seminary for priests.

When asked by The Washington Post in 1989 what he would like people to say about him after his death, he replied: "First, I'd like them to say that he was always loyal to his church. Second, that he was a friend to Catholic education. And third, if they don't want to say the first two, at least I hope they would chisel on the stone, 'He served the poor.' "

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