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Father Charles Randolph Uncles, SSJ: the first Black priest ordained in the United States

Father Charles Randolph Uncles (photo courtesy of the Josephite Archives)

Father Charles Randolph Uncles was the first African American man ordained to the priesthood in the United States.  Baltimore Cardinal James Gibbons ordained him and nine other men as priests on Dec. 19, 1891. Venerable Augustus Tolton, another black priest serving in the United States at the time, had been ordained in Rome at the Basilica of St. John Lateran.  

The new Father Uncles was born in Baltimore and attended the historically Black Catholic St. Francis Xavier Church.  He presided at his first public Mass there at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning about a week after his ordination.  Accounts of the first Mass describe a massive crowd forming at this extremely early hour.   The Baltimore Afro-American described the scene as follows: “Never before at such an hour had such a crowd been out in the street with Catholics mustering in force; and perhaps never before such music and such a blaze of light and such lavish ornamentation of the altars surround the tall, handsome, fair, young Afro-American priest.”

Father Uncles was 31 years old at his ordination, and he had been active in his Catholic parish growing up, attending the parish school when he was very young. He primarily attended public schools, particularly the Baltimore Normal School for Colored Teachers, the predecessor of Bowie State University.  He worked his way through school as a typesetter at a printing house.   But after completing work at the Baltimore Normal School, he ran a school outside of the city of Baltimore for several years.  

In 1883 after going through some evening tutoring with Father John R. Slattery, the head of the Josephite order, the future Father Uncles moved to Quebec, Canada to attend St. Hyacinthe Minor Seminary.  It was one of the few seminaries to accept him because of his race.  Once he had completed his work at the minor seminary, he returned to Baltimore to attend St. Joseph’s Seminary, for the Josephite Fathers.  Many of the seminarians at St. Joseph’s also took classes at St. Mary’s Seminary.  The students actually voted to allow the future Father Uncles to join their classes.  It was a unanimous vote.

After his ordination, he also became active in a series of meetings for Black Catholics, known as the Congress of Colored Catholics.  The meetings had begun at St. Augustine’s Church in Washington, D.C., in 1889, when Father Uncles was still in the seminary.  The First Mass of the Congress was celebrated by Father Augustus Tolton, and Cardinal Gibbons was present.  Father Uncles’ mentor, Father John Slattery, was also a main proponent of the movement in the beginning.  By 1894 when the last congress was held the group would split apart.  In a foreshadowing that would be seen again and again in the Black community, some delegates wanted more radical means to overcome segregation while Father Slattery and others supporting him preached accommodation and working within the system.  It is not clear what Father Tolton’s opinion about this was.  Father Uncles was Father Slattery’s protégé but we also don’t know his opinion on these issues.  

In the year after his ordination, Father Uncles began teaching at Epiphany Apostolic College, the preparatory or minor seminary that had been recently created for the Josephites.   It is a position he held until his death in 1933 at the age of 73.  The Josephites worked exclusively within the African American community in the United States, and it was these priests that Father Uncles spent his career training.   In the Archdiocese of Washington we have had about 10 parishes, which the Josephites have overseen at various times.   

(Dr. Jacobe serves as the director of the Archives for the Archdiocese of Washington.)