On a day of history for the U.S. Catholic Church, Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory– who four hours earlier had learned that Pope Francis had named him a cardinal – celebrated his first Mass as a cardinal-designate on Oct. 25, 2020 at Holy Angels Church in Avenue in Southern Maryland, near the cradle of U.S. Catholicism, a few miles from St. Clement’s Island, where Jesuit Father Andrew White celebrated the first Catholic Mass in the English-speaking colonies on 1634 after colonists from England made landfall there.

“It takes us back to the beginning. I thought about it all during Mass, (that) I’m so close to the beginning of the faith here in the United States on this first day of the announcement of my appointment,” Cardinal-designate Gregory said in an interview after the Mass. 

He added, “It takes me back to the beginning of the proclamation of the Gospel and the care of God’s people” in what became the United States.

Noting the irony of the situation, he pointed out that celebrating the 250th anniversary Mass for Holy Angels had been on his calendar for a long time.

“It wasn’t something I planned. It was something God planned,” he said.

The announcement made history in another way, because at the Nov. 28 consistory, Cardinal-designate Gregory will become the first African American cardinal in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States.

When asked what his elevation to the College of Cardinals meant to him personally, to be the first African American cardinal in the United States, and what that would mean to the nation’s Black Catholics, Cardinal-designate Gregory’s voice broke slightly as he said, “I’m deeply humbled. I know that I am reaping a harvest that millions of African American Catholics and people of color have planted. I am deeply grateful for the faith that they have lived so generously, so zealously and with such great devotion.”

Cardinal-designate Gregory said he saw his appointment as “another opportunity to serve and to care for the Church and to have the Church (of Washington) in closer union with Pope Francis.”

He added, “I hope it is a sign of the continued investment of the Church in the work of justice, peace and harmony among people.”

Cardinal-designate Gregory will become the sixth cardinal archbishop of Washington. The Archdiocese of Washington includes the nation’s capital and the five surrounding Maryland counties of St. Mary’s, where he celebrated that morning’s Mass; and also Charles, Calvert, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

Asked if he had a special message for the people of the Archdiocese of Washington, Cardinal-designate Gregory said, “I renew my deep love for this local Church. Obviously my predecessors shared this title. I hope that I can continue to love and care for the people of the archdiocese with the same depth of devotion that the former cardinal archbishops have done from the beginning.”

Pope Pius XII established the Archdiocese of Washington in 1939. Cardinal Patrick  O’Boyle, who became the first resident archbishop of Washington in 1948, was named as Washington’s first cardinal archbishop in 1967. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who led the archdiocese from 2006 until his retirement in 2018, was its most recent cardinal archbishop after being elevated to the College of Cardinals in 2010.

Considering that the last five archbishops to lead the Archdiocese of Washington had been named cardinals, Archbishop Gregory’s appointment wasn’t a total surprise, but the timing was a surprise, even to him.

“The Holy Father makes these announcements now spontaneously,” said Cardinal-designate Gregory. “This morning at the Angelus where the crowd was gathered in St. Peter’s Square, the Holy Father prayed the Angelus with them, made a Scripture reflection for today, then he said, ‘I’m going to have a consistory on the 28th of November, and these are the new cardinals I will create.”

Archbishop Gregory said he learned the news about 6:30 that morning, from a phone call from Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life who earlier served as the bishop of Dallas and was an auxiliary bishop, archdiocesan administrator and parish priest in Washington.

In the phone call, Cardinal Farrell said, “I want to be the first to congratulate you,” Cardinal-designate Gregory said, smiling. “I didn’t know anything!”

In the interview that morning after the anniversary Mass at Holy Angels, Washington’s archbishop joked, “So Kevin Farrell was my archangel this morning!”

Father Stephen Wyble, the administrator of Holy Angels Parish, gives Communion to a woman during the 250th anniversary Mass celebrated by Cardinal-designate Wilton Gregory on Oct. 25, 2020. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

As he welcomed Archbishop Gregory to Holy Angels Church at the beginning of the Mass that morning, Father Stephen Wyble, the parish’s administrator, noted the surprise news that Pope Francis had named Washington’s archbishop as a new cardinal that morning, which drew applause from the congregation and a broad smile from him.

Noting the parish’s special history, Father Wyble said, “Holy Angels Parish is the historical ‘descendant’ of the oldest of the Maryland Jesuit missions.”

The priest pointed out that after Father White celebrated the first Catholic Mass in the English-speaking colonies at nearby St. Clement’s Island in 1634, the Jesuit established his first mission on White’s Neck, both of which are in the present-day confines of Holy Angels Parish. St. Clement’s Island is regarded as a landmark of religious freedom, since the Maryland colony was established on the principle of religious toleration.

Father Wyble noted that the neighboring parish, Sacred Heart in Bushwood, began serving Holy Angels as a mission 250 years ago in 1770, and that was the anniversary that they were celebrating. In Holy Angels’ first years as a mission, Jesuit priests celebrated Masses in people’s homes. The first Mass was celebrated in the newly built Holy Angels chapel on the Feast of the Guardian Angels, on Oct. 2, 1904, and Holy Angels Parish was canonically established in 1906.

 “The name Holy Angels was chosen in connection to Father White and the voyagers on the Ark and the Dove, who placed their expedition to the New World in the hands of the Guardian Angels,” Father Wyble said.

Small statues of two kneeling winged angels are on both sides of the church’s tabernacle, and on one side of the sanctuary, there is a large statue of St. Michael the Archangel, brandishing a sword against Satan, the fallen angel.

Cardinal-designate Wilton Gregory celebrates the 250th anniversary Mass at Holy Angels Church in Avenue, Maryland on Oct. 25, 2020. At left is Father Stephen Wyble, the parish's administrator. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

In his homily at the anniversary Mass, Cardinal-designate Gregory said, “I am pleased to be with you as you mark this benchmark.”

The congregation in the country church included people of all ages, including senior citizens and several families with young children. Washington’s archbishop commended Holy Angels parishioners for living “the faith of the Church with joy and enthusiasm these past 250 years.”

He praised Holy Angels, noting that it is known as a “neighborly parish,” where people have been welcomed, loved and respected for 250 years, and he said that he hopes that in the years to come, “this parish will continue to grew in faith and love for God and neighbor.”

“Happy birthday, Holy Angels, at 250 years of age, you look marvelous!” he said.

The cardinal-designate noted the special historic legacy of the parish, saying, “This is a very important place, historically. It is the bedrock of the beginning of the Catholic faith in our nation… My prayer is that this is only the beginning.”

During the 250th anniversary Mass at Holy Angels, Cardinal-designate Gregory blesses the new main altar there. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

After his homily, Cardinal-designate Gregory blessed the new main altar at Holy Angels with holy water and incense. Choir members sang, “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ the Lord,” as Father Wyble and Father Charles Cortinovis, the archbishop’s priest secretary who previously served as pastor there, put the altar cloth, candles, chalice and book of Mass prayers on it.

The Holy Angels parishioners attending the anniversary Mass included Kimmie Gibson, the parish’s coordinator for faith formation, who was joined by her three young children: son Brady, 10, and daughters Maci, 8, and Sadie, 6.

Gibson, who is 35, noted that she has attended Holy Angels Church her entire life, receiving all of her sacraments there, including Baptism and First Holy Communion, and she and her husband Michael were married there. Now she homeschools her children, raising them in the faith.

“It’s really important in today’s world that’s ever changing, it’s important to show my kids this is never changing, our faith, that when times are crazy, we can come here and find peace” she said.

The parish and region’s Catholic history are important to her, she said, noting that her grandparents were parishioners when the present Holy Angels Church was built in 1962, and she has taken her children to St. Clement’s Island and has gone fishing around the island with them.

Praising the faith of those first Maryland colonists, she said, “They were incredibly brave, coming here and starting that for us, and what a gift we have, and it’s something we should be passing on for generations to come.”

Asked what it meant to her, that the anniversary Mass turned out being on the morning when the pope had named Archbishop Gregory as a new cardinal, Gibson said, “I found myself very emotional. I cried through most of the Mass. It is so incredible that it would be today, on our anniversary.”

Kimmie Gibson prays at the anniversary Mass at Holy Angels Church on Oct. 25, 2020 with her children Brady, Sadie and Maci. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Another lifelong Holy Angels parishioner, Millie Huseman, is now 67. She also has received all her sacraments at that church. The new altar blessed at the church that day had been donated by her late parents, Stanton and Margaret Guy, and she noted that her ninth great grandfather, Dr. Thomas Gerrard, had owned St. Clement’s Island. She had the Mother of Light Shrine erected at Colton’s Point, overlooking St. Clement’s Island, and that shrine was recently relocated to a garden honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary at Immaculate Conception Parish in Mechanicsville.

Over the years, Huseman has served as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist at Holy Angels, giving people Communion at Masses and bringing the Eucharist to the homebound, and she has directed the children’s and adults’ choirs there.

“It’s a community of love,” she said, summarizing the spirit of Holy Angels Parish. “It’s my heart. It’s my life. It’s my heritage.”

Father Wyble said that considering the special history of Holy Angels Parish and its vicinity, it was providential that Cardinal-designate Gregory celebrated Mass there on the morning when he was named a cardinal.

“It’s a blessing to us and to the archdiocese that this happened here,” he said.

Since February 2020, Father Wyble has served as the administrator of both Holy Angels Parish and nearby Sacred Heart Parish in Bushwood, which both have about 300 households as parishioners. 

Sacred Heart was canonically established in 1755. In addition to having ties to that region’s deep Catholic history, both of those country parishes are known for their twice yearly fundraising dinners that draw patrons from across Maryland and from nearby states. For generations, families at both parishes have grown produce for those dinners and faithfully prepared homecooked meals to support Holy Angels and Sacred Heart parishes. 

The coronavirus pandemic and resulting shutdown of public Masses had caused three of those dinners to be canceled this year, but on Oct. 25, the same day as the anniversary Mass at Holy Angels, Sacred Heart Parish was holding its fall dinner, featuring fried oysters, turkey with dressing and gravy, parsley potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, country green beans, coleslaw and rolls, with cakes also on sale. That day, they expected to serve 1,000 drive-through carryout meals at Sacred Heart.

Father Wyble noted, “This is a quiet area that has enormous history and enormous faith.” And as he left the Mass at Holy Angels to go to Sacred Heart where the dinners were being picked up, he praised those families who have supported those parishes. 

“It shows their love of their Church… It’s a practical way of showing their love for the Church and the Lord,” he said.