The Rev. William Norvel was considering retirement after nearly 50 years of ministering to and advocating for African American inclusion in the Catholic Church.
But his fellow priests had a different idea. Several of them sat him down and made him an offer: Become the primary voice for the nation’s 3 million black Catholics.
Norvel, 76, had been a top-notch recruiter, spending five years in Nigeria persuading seminarians to come back to the United States. And in his most recent post, as pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Anacostia, Norvel quashed a rebellion in which a vocal minority of parishioners had publicly defied the Archdiocese of Washington and called the previous white pastor a dictator and a bigot.
Instead of choosing the easy chair, Norvel accepted the promotion.
Now he’s the 13th superior general of the Josephite Priests and Brothers, a Roman Catholic order that was started 140 years ago to minister to freed slaves.
Norvel is the first African American in the job.
“I thought I was ready for retirement,” said Norvel, who was officially installed last month during a ceremony at Our Lady. “But it looks like the Lord has asked me to continue to minister to my brothers and sisters.”
A native of Pascagoula, Miss., Norvel is considered by black Catholics across the country as a peacemaker who looks like them, understands their issues and has advocated on their behalf before an often unresponsive church hierarchy. His elevation increases the profile of black Catholics, a small group among the nation’s 77 million Catholics.
“It is about time that [the Josephites] had an African American to lead them,” said Deacon Al Turner, director of the Office of Black Catholics for the Archdiocese of Washington. “African American Catholics suffer from invisibility. We have always been doing things, but the larger population thinks that we are invisible because they don’t see many blacks in leadership.”
The oldest black Catholic church in the country, St. Francis Xavier in Baltimore, was founded in 1793. The sanctuary is filled with stained glass, narrow pews and faded marble. This is where the Josephites, with more than 40 parishes in seven states and the District, chose to set up shop. The Josephites are still headquartered in Baltimore.
“When the Josephites came from Europe, they started a ministry among the parishes here,” Norvel said on a recent Sunday after celebrating Mass there.
“Baltimore was where the free men of color came, coming from the Caribbean, Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba,” he said. “They were coming to the port here. There were going to St. Ignatius Church, but they had to worship down in the basement. There was a lot of racism. As a result, they started a church.”
This struggle to belong inside the church parallels the path of blacks in America.
“In our life story, with the slave trade, with Jim Crow and all of the horrors of our history, there is still that faithfulness to the church,” said Kathleen Dorsey Bellow, assistant director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University. “It is because we can make a connection between our African American culture and Catholic tradition.”
Our Lady, in Anacostia, is one example.
In 1871, two African American physicians purchased the land to build the church, and the Josephites were asked to provide a priest to lead the flock. With the help of sympathetic whites, the church became a landmark, and the institution’s Panorama Room became famous for its hilltop vista — with stunning views of Maryland, the District and Virginia — and its cabarets, political gatherings and town meetings.
Parishioners viewed the church as theirs because their ancestors built it, maintained it through generations and sent their children to its school.
Black and white priests came and went, but things fell apart when the Rev. Donald Fest, who is white, arrived and started upsetting the norm. Of particular concern were the limits he placed on members’ use of the Panorama Room. Order dissolved into shouting matches, suspensions and even a stay-away order filed in D.C. Superior Court in 2006.
Fest was accused of running the church like a dictator instead of a spiritual father. Fest, a Josephite, had previous postings at black parishes.
But he maintained throughout his disagreements at Our Lady that parishioners didn’t understand their role. “This is not a plantation,” Fest said at the time. “If I’m a racist, I have picked some interesting — well, I didn’t pick them — assignments. We’ve existed for 2,000 years. This parish has existed for 85 years. The pastor has certain rights and responsibilities. It’s not a majority-rule kind of thing.”
The Archdiocese of Washington backed Fest and told parishioners to be quiet or leave the church. Church leaders reached out to Norvel. In short order, Norvel did what his superiors could not: He quashed the rebellion and unified a warring congregation. His secret, he said, was listening to and respecting all groups within the church.
“There was a lack of unity in the parish and unrest,” Norvel said, “but they sent me here to bring peace.”
As a teen in Mississippi, Norvel was initially told that the priesthood was for whites. But the Rev. Edward Lawlor, a white priest in the Josephite order, persuaded Norvel to attend seminary in New York. This month, Lawlor, 96, sat with priests and deacons of the Catholic Church during a special Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help to fete Norvel.
“It was a wise investment,” Lawlor said. “I knew that he was priest material.”
Norvel was ordained as a Josephite priest in 1965 in a ceremony at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans and spent most of his career in schools and parishes across the South.
He established the first Catholic gospel choirs in the District and Los Angeles. And he was a contributing author to “Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal.” Norvel said that although color barriers are a thing of the past, black Catholics are drawn to their parishes and unique ways of expression within the church.
That was apparent at his induction ceremony in September.
“As a little girl, I remember when he was ordained as a priest in New Orleans,” said Alexis Herman, a former U.S. secretary of labor, who solicited a letter of commendation from President Obama.
Joining Lawlor and Herman at the induction ceremony were members of Norvel’s family. His sister, Paulette Norvel Lewis, spoke to his personal side.
“He never misses birthdays,” she said. “He is a great communicator. He always wanted to be a priest. He was one of the people doing exactly what he wanted to do.”
Soon after the ceremony, Norvel was focused on the task ahead.
One of his top priorities is to train and encourage more young men to become priests. His effort has taken him to Africa to recruit. “I spent five years in Africa,” he said, “and I was able to get 25 young men to serve, and now they are studying here.”
On a recent Sunday at St. Francis Xavier in Baltimore, Norvel celebrated Mass. As the home church for black Catholics, history fills the sanctuary.
“For 350 years, African Americans have been in this church, and we are not going anywhere,” said Turner, of the Archdiocese of Washington. “This is our church. We belong to it, and we will nourish the faith.”
To do so, Norvel said the Catholic Church must be relevant to its followers.
“The church has to get out of its walls and begin to relate to the people in the community,” he said. “Churches have to become a family for our people in the community.”