The Washington Post

Episcopal parish in Bladensburg converts to Roman Catholic Church

Archbishop of Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, right, anoints the forehead of Mark Lewis, formerly the pastor at St. Luke’s in Bladensburg, whose members are converting en masse to Catholicism during a Rite of Reception Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

The Rev. Mark Lewis awoke early on the last morning of his life as an Anglican priest and dressed in a suit and tie instead of his usual priestly regalia. That’s different, he thought, for the first of many times on a day when so much was different for St. Luke’s, the small Episcopal church in Maryland where Lewis had been rector since 2006.

On Sunday — with Lewis wearing lay clothing and sitting with St. Luke’s parishioners inside the Crypt Church at Washington’s Basilica of the National Shine of the Immaculate Conception — most of the parish from Bladensburg converted to Catholicism.

In doing so, St. Luke’s became the first Episcopal church in the United States to convert under new Vatican rules meant to attract disaffected Protestants.

“This truly is a historic moment,” said Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, who led Sunday’s conversion Mass, which he called “a joyful moment of completion.”

Fifty-eight of St. Luke’s roughly 100 parishioners were confirmed at the applause-filled Mass, during which they were anointed by Wuerl — one by one, old and young, white and black.

Osita Okafor, a 56-year-old Nigerian immigrant, found himself first in line before Wuerl for the rite of reception. His reaction? “Oh, my God, I must be blessed.”

Like many members of St. Luke’s, Okafor is an immigrant from Africa — in his case, Nigeria. Many others are from the Caribbean.

Lewis, the former pastor, was anointed last in an act of symbolism. “A good shepherd must be sure his flock gets through the gate,” Lewis said.

Ten other St. Luke’s parishioners were welcomed back as Catholics after long ago drifting from the church. Three received their first Communion.

At least 10 other St. Luke’s parishioners intend to be received by the Catholic Church later.

Then, as the others did Sunday, they will announce that they “believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God.”

Members of St. Luke’s said they converted because of their longing for one clear religious authority.

They said they didn’t like the range of views that Anglican clerics expressed on issues such as same-sex relationships and Christianity’s sole claim to God.

The parish’s conversion made international headlines when it was announced in June. After all, St. Luke’s had been an Episcopal church for more than a century. But it wasn’t too much of a leap for the parish, which for years had been part of Anglo-Catholicism, a movement that embraces various Catholic practices and theology but still treasures aspects of Anglican ritual, such as kneeling to receive Communion.

At the basilica, before the archbishop, parishioners stood for Communion. But at St. Luke’s, they’ll be allowed to kneel under the guidelines laid out by the Vatican in 2009 when it announced plans to create a special body that would let American Anglicans keep some of their traditions, including their married priests.

“We considered ourselves a Catholic parish to begin with,” said Lewis, the former pastor. “We aligned ourselves much more closely with Catholic theology than Protestant theology. If you really weren’t a student of religion, you would say nothing has really changed. What’s taking place is internal. Becoming Roman Catholic was a natural progression of our faith.”

One notable change took place in June: The addition of “for Benedict, our pope,” to St. Luke’s prayers.

Patrick Delaney, one of the church’s lay leaders, was beaming after the Mass at a reception in the basilica’s Memorial Hall, where the new and old Catholics mingled over cheese and fruit plates.

“I’m floating in the clouds,” he said. How does being Catholic feel different? “I don’t know if there’s a tangible feeling,” he said, “other than the joy and exuberance and the weight and awesome responsibility of what this means.

“But I know I’m a different person now.”

The parish will return to Bladensburg for Mass next Sunday; the service will be led by Monsignor Keith Newton, a former Anglican bishop who is now head of the Personal Ordinariate of England and Wales — the first ordinariate established after Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic constitution was issued.

Lewis — who is married and whom Cardinal Wuerl called “Father Mark Lewis” at the beginning of the conversion Mass and, simply, “Mark Lewis” at the end — is working to become a Catholic priest. But even with an expedited process, it could be months before he’s ordained.

The Rev. R. Scott Hurd, a former Anglican who converted to Roman Catholicism, will lead St. Luke’s until Lewis is ready.

Hurd said a non-theologian might not notice a difference between the Catholic community of St. Luke’s and St. Luke’s in its Episcopalian days. “They’ll be singing most of the same songs and saying most of the same prayers,” Hurd said.

“The difference is very subtle,” parishioner David Chase said. “It’s sort of like going home to auntie.”

J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.
Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.


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