We continue focusing on the Archdiocese of Washington’s work during the Civil Rights movement by looking at the life of a major leader on Civil Rights, poverty and urban issues, Msgr. Geno Baroni. In this post we will look at his life and accomplishments. In future posts we will focus on some of his larger initiatives within the archdiocese.
Msgr. George Higgins – a noted Catholic writer on social justice issues and a champion of the rights of workers – described Msgr. Geno Baroni as “one of the most innovative and most effective Catholic social activists of his generation.” Msgr. Baroni was born in Acosta, Pennsylvania in 1930 in a coal company town to Italian immigrant parents. He was ordained in 1956 for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and worked in several parishes where he encountered an entrenched Irish clergy, several of whom did not look kindly on the young Italian-American priest nor his beliefs in labor organizing and social action. Circumstances soon brought him to the Archdiocese of Washington, where he was assigned as an assistant to Msgr. George Gingras, then the pastor of St. Augustine’s Parish, the mother church for Black Catholics in the nation’s capital, founded in 1858 by free men and women of color. At St. Augustine’s, then-Father Baroni found a vibrant parish in the midst of a decaying neighborhood. Through his work at St. Augustine’s, the priest would soon become a leader in a new kind of Catholic social activism, which saw the poor not as objects of pity in need a paternal handout but as partners in the universal struggle for justice.
The young priest convinced Msgr. Gingras to convert the former Convent of Perpetual Adoration at 1419 V Street, which had been created in 1906 with funding from Ida Barry Ryan, into a parish center. Commonly called the V Street Center, and now known as the Gingras Center, the building housed the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Catholic Interracial Council of Washington, hosted community meetings, and tutoring, day care, and summer camps for students. Initially, Father Baroni also had a group of young women activists living on the upper floor in the former nun’s quarters in the spirit of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement to help run the center and its programs. As the headquarters of the Catholic Interracial Council of Washington, the V Street Center became a command center for the 1963 March on Washington.
Father Baroni’s work with justice extended outside of Washington, D.C. He joined the second March to Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 9, 1963, two days after Bloody Sunday. He also participated in protests and prayer services in Montgomery, Alabama. He worked to found the Interreligious Committee on Religion and Race, which brought together Catholic, Protestant and Jewish leadership for the first time.
In 1965, Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle, then the archbishop of Washington and a future cardinal, named Father Baroni as the executive director of the archdiocese’s Office of Urban Affairs. There he worked to improve housing in the District, particularly after the 1968 riots destroyed a large section of the city. He also served as the program director for the Urban Task Force at the United States Catholic Conference under then-Bishop Joseph Bernardin. In this role, the priest was instrumental in forming the Campaign for Human Development.
In 1970, Msgr. Baroni founded and served at the first president of the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs. The purpose of the center was to build up decaying ethnic neighborhoods in America’s cities. Msgr. Baroni knew that people who lived in cities must be able to work together for a common good. As Msgr. Higgins pointed out, Msgr. Baroni understood that “middle and lower class whites could become a reactionary force unless they developed a healthy sense of their own identity and dignity. But he saw more clearly than most people of his generation that working class blacks and whites are, or should be, allies, not enemies, and he spent most of his adult life prodding them to work together to resolve their common problems.”
In 1971-72, Msgr. Baroni fostered the creation of Network, the Catholic social justice lobbying organization. The priest also helped found another organization in 1975, the National Italian American Foundation, the mission of which is partly to preserve the Italian American heritage and to promote and inspire a positive image and legacy of Italian Americans. Msgr. Baroni had endured discrimination as an Italian American from the time he was a child in Pennsylvania. By the 1980s, he was able to see some Italian Americans such as Congresswoman and Vice-Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro and Governor Mario Cuomo of New York reach national prominence.
On March 24, 1977, Msgr. Baroni was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to serve as the Assistant Secretary of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, the first Roman Catholic priest to serve in a cabinet-level position in United States history. In 1981, Msgr. Baroni returned to the Archdiocese of Washington as a special assistant for community affairs, working with Archbishop James A. Hickey, then the archbishop of Washington and also a future cardinal. Msgr. Geno Baroni died of cancer at Providence Hospital in 1984 at the age of 53.
(Dr. Jacobe serves as the director of the Archives for the Archdiocese of Washington.)