Beloved priest worked to combine African and Catholic rituals

Thursday, May 16, 2002

BALTIMORE -- The Rev. Maurice Blackwell was beloved by many of Baltimore's black Catholics for infusing the religion with African-American rituals, such as hanging kente cloths and having couples celebrate their weddings by jumping over broomsticks.

On Monday, Blackwell lay in serious condition and parishioners and church leaders said they were praying for both him and Dontee Stokes, the man accused of shooting the priest.

Stokes, 26, claimed that Blackwell had molested him when he was a teen-age parishioner at another church nine years ago. Stokes was arrested on attempted murder charges after the shooting Monday.

A judge denied him bail Wednesday and ordered him to undergo a pyschological examination.

Seeking an apology

Stokes asked to be released so he could see his child and his family, assuring a judge: "I just want to say I'm not a flight risk and I'm not at risk to myself. Although I may be depressed, I'm not suicidal."

"What you're saying, Mr. Stokes, might be true, but I'd be more comfortable hearing what the doctor says," Judge H. Gary Bass replied.

A police investigator told the judge that Stokes had attempted suicide in 1996. Stokes corrected her, saying he tried to kill himself in 1993 or 1994.

Stokes' lawyer, Thomas McNicholas, described the suicide attempt as "an aberration," though he said the recent news about the child sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church "triggered all these emotions" in Stokes.

Stokes shot Blackwell outside his home Monday after the priest refused to talk to him. Stokes had grown frustrated because he was unable to get an apology from the priest, said his mother, Tamara Stokes.

Blackwell, 56, "deserves our continued respect and support. They both do," said the Rev. Don Sterling, Baltimore's only other ordained black parish priest and a former classmate of Blackwell's at St. Mary's Seminary and University.

Sterling said Blackwell remains well-known among Catholics, even though the Baltimore Archdiocese stripped him four years ago of his duties as a priest because of another alleged victim's accusations.

Blackwell was credited with tripling the size of his parish before he was ousted from St. Edward Roman Catholic Church, situated in a poor west Baltimore neighborhood dotted with boarded-up homes and check-cashing businesses.

He would often drape the altar with kente cloths, ceremonial weavings that are part of African tradition, and encourage brides and grooms to jump a broom to symbolize their commitment, a practice common among slaves that has been traced to Africa.

"He helped people get in touch with who they are by way of their own culture and creativity and abilities," Sterling said. "It was a method of self-affirmation as an African-American and as sons and daughters of God."

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