BLADENSBURG, Md. — “As we began to think about certain matters, our hearts began to melt, and we moved towards Rome,” said Father Mark Lewis, rector of a church that was formerly St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Bladensburg, Md.
St. Luke’s has made headlines as the first Episcopal church in the Washington, D.C., area and the second in the state of Maryland to avail itself of Pope Benedict XVI’s offer to Anglicans. That offer was outlined in Anglicanorum Coetibus, an apostolic constitution that makes it possible for groups of Anglican congregations to enter the Catholic Church
For the St. Luke community, that will happen on Oct. 9, when Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, will receive them into the Catholic Church.
The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith last fall put Cardinal Wuerl in charge of coordinating the entry of Episcopal parishes into the Church.
The Archdiocese of Washington will provide pastoral oversight for St. Luke’s until the new ordinariate for formerly Episcopal churches is established. The cardinal has said that the ordinariate could be set up before the end of 2011. The United Kingdom already has one, Our Lady of Walsingham.
St. Luke’s is a small, picturesque church, built in the 1950s, that features needlepoint kneelers and beautiful silver on the altar. It is a diverse parish that includes people from the nearby area, West Africa and the West Indies. Unlike many parishes that opt to leave the Episcopal Church to join Anglican offshoots, the people of St. Luke’s will be able to continue worshipping in their beloved church.
The Right Rev. John Bryson Chane, Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., has agreed to allow St. Luke’s to lease the property with an option to buy. Father Lewis called it “a generous arrangement.” Bishop Chane said that the “transition was achieved in a spirit of pastoral sensitivity and mutual respect.”
Father Scott Hurd, a bearded former Episcopal priest, who serves as executive director of the Washington Archdiocese’s Office of the Permanent Diaconate, is shepherding St. Luke’s through the transition.
“I’ve made this journey,” said Father Hurd, “and so I understand why this community is doing this.”
The St. Thomas of Canterbury Anglican Use Society of Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia is another group in the metropolitan area that is seeking to come into the Church as a group. The society regularly holds Evensong services at St. Anselm’s (Benedictine) Abbey in Washington and at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Annandale, Va. It is composed both of former Episcopalians who are Catholic and Episcopalians who are preparing for full communion with the Church.
A 52-year-old former Marine and lifelong Episcopalian until recently, Father Lewis, who is married, said that a period of “deep discernment” led St. Luke’s to seek entry into the Catholic Church. The discernment was not triggered by recent developments in the Episcopal Church, he said. “It began because of the Holy Father’s Anglicanorum Coetibus, which opened a door that had been closed,” he said.
“We put so much value in Scripture,” said Father Lewis, “but in our discernment we came to understand that there has to be apostolic authority in the sense of ‘the buck stops here.’ Who interprets Scripture? It can’t be different interpretations in different dioceses. This led us to Rome.”
He added, “We asked ourselves: ‘Is the Lord calling us to fight for this little corner of Anglicanism or be in the fullness of the faith?’”
He also said that he “didn’t convince my parishioners to do this — the Holy Spirit led us.”
Father Hurd interjected that good leadership from Father Lewis was also an important factor in helping the parish decide to take such an important step. The vestry (a lay body similar to a parish council) voted in May to become Catholic. The vast majority of parishioners will follow.
Father Hurd is teaching catechetical classes twice a week at St. Luke’s.
Father Lewis came from what is called the “high Church” wing of the Episcopal Church. He studied theology at Mount St. Mary’s University, the Catholic seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., and at Nashotah House in Wisconsin, a famous Episcopal seminary that is part of what Episcopalians refer to half-jokingly as “the biretta belt,” a string of ritualistic churches in the Midwest. He was ordained in 2001.
Now, he will study for the Catholic priesthood at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston. He will participate in a special rigorous but fast-track course of study designed for former Episcopal priests. He could be ordained within a year. Father Hurd will serve as chaplain in the interim.
As a Catholic priest, Father Lewis said he plans to continue his practice of celebrating the Mass ad orientem. St. Luke’s will use the Book of Divine Worship, a liturgical text that preserves much of the language beloved by Anglicans in a form accepted by Rome.
Meanwhile, St. Luke’s website features a prayer with distinctly Anglican wording and completely Catholic sentiment. It reads, in part: “Bring us to be of one heart and mind within the fold of thy holy Catholic Church, through Jesus Christ thy Son and Our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth one God, world without end. Amen.”
As St. Luke’s engages in a “Eucharistic fast” — the time between cessation of Anglican sacramental life and confirmation as Catholics — the parish awaits Oct. 9, when it will be in full communion with Rome. The date was chosen with care: It is the feast of Blessed John Henry Newman, the 19th-century theologian who is perhaps the most famous of all Anglican converts to Catholicism.
Said one excited man, who explained that he has belonged to St. Luke’s for several decades, “I can’t wait to go.”
Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.