DENVER -- It was little more than a year ago when black Roman Catholics took center stage before the U.S. bishops to press their case for a pastoral plan aimed at the black community.
On the dais that day were the Rev. Eugene Marino, at the time Atlanta's archbishop and the highest ranking black in the U.S. hierarchy, and Sister Thea Bowman, a renowned black preacher and teacher who so moved the assembled bishops that some of them cried.
It was a moment of pride and warm acceptance of black Catholic concerns.
But in the months since that assembly at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, the black Catholic community has been jolted by a series of events that has removed three of its most powerful leaders.
Members of the black Catholic organization, the Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver, meeting here this week, assessed the loss of the leadership of Marino, Bowman and the Rev. George Augustus Stallings Jr.
Bowman, whose body was riddled with bone cancer at the time of her appearance before the bishops, died in April at the age of 52. Marino, who resigned in July from his post in Atlanta, recently confirmed he stepped down, not for health reasons as originally announced, but because of a two-year affair with an Atlanta woman.
And it was just days after the bishops' meeting last spring that Stallings started a black congregation in defiance of Washington Cardinal James A. Hickey. Stallings, a dynamic preacher who traveled the country, later was embroiled in controversy after The Washington Post reported he was alleged to have had sexual relationships with altar boys and that he spent church money to support a well-to-do lifestyle. He was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church.
"Those things are nothing new in our lives," said Paul Condoll, supreme knight of the Knights of Claver. "We've been dealing with adversity all of our lives -- it comes relatively easy for us."
Condoll, head of the 45,000-member fraternal organization for black Catholics, and others attending the group's annual convention here, said that while the losses hurt, they would not have a long-term effect on blacks in the church. "We're still progressing," said Lillian LeBlanc of Port Arthur, Tex. "The losses are only temporary."
The hope, they said, is that new highly visible leaders will emerge. Despite the loss of the three high-profile figures, the head of the Knights of Claver auxiliary is optimistic. "I see very much a willingness on the part of the hierarchy to accommodate the needs of ethnic groups in the church," said Dorothy Henderson, a retired high school and college teacher from Lafayette, La. Such openness has not always been the case, she added.
In the case of Marino, leaders of the Knights of Claver expressed understanding and concern. The Knights of Claver "will work with him to get him back active with his people," said Condoll, who with Henderson and Bishop Joseph A. Francis of Newark, N.J., the organization's chaplain, sent Marino a letter of support. The archbishop reportedly is staying at a retreat center in New York.
The death of Bowman, on the other hand, "devastated" black Catholics, Henderson said, because "we know her to be irreplacable."
Condoll said leaders of the 80-year-old fraternal organization might have been able to work out some sort of compromise with Stallings and church leaders last year, but no one ever asked the group to become involved or sought its advice.
"We still love him," Condoll said. "We support his efforts in whatever he's doing. There's two sides to every story."