Carole Norris Greene
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON – Cyprian Lamar Rowe, a social justice activist,
poet, author and leading figure in the African-American
Catholic community in the U.S., died Nov. 25 at Gilchrist
Hospice Care in Towson, after a long illness. He was 73.
A funeral Mass for Rowe was offeredr Dec. 6 at St. Peter
Claver Catholic Church in Baltimore.
Mr. Rowe is the former executive director of the
Washington-based National Office for Black Catholics, 1978-80,
and the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, 1981-83.
He was a Marist brother for 46 years before leaving the order
and the church in 1997 to join Imani Temple, a breakaway
African-American Catholic community founded by Archbishop
George A. Stallings Jr., a former Catholic priest.
At the time Mr. Rowe was a professor in the University of
Maryland’s Graduate School of Social Work in College Park, and
a research associate in the psychiatry department of Johns
Hopkins University in Baltimore.
He said his “very painful” decision to leave the Roman
Catholic Church to spearhead the theological education of the
Imani Temple’s priests and seminarians was not an issue of
race. “It’s an issue of culture,” he said. “It’s an issue of
how do we African-American people tend to what the Lord’s
saying to us, through the genius of our people.”
sense I will always be a Marist brother,” he said. “I was
shaped by the spirituality of (Marist founder) Marcellin
Champagnat. That will never change.”
In 2000, however, Rowe renounced all association with Imani
Temple, saying he made a lot of ill-advised decisions
following the death of his 81-year-old mother in 1996 and
joining Imani Temple was one of them.
“I had the false notion that by reconstructing everything in
my life, in some magical way I would feel less pain over the
loss of my mother,” said Mr. Rowe in a 2000 interview with
Catholic News Service.
He met privately that year with Cardinal James A. Hickey of
Washington. “He embraced me so hard he nearly took the wind
out of me, and then he said, ‘Welcome home,’” Mr. Rowe
recalled, adding, “I was almost in tears.”
Mr. Rowe also asked to re-enter the Marist community, but was
It was Mr. Rowe’s stirring appeal to some 1,500 delegates and
observers at the historic sixth National Black Catholic
Congress in Washington in 1987 that quelled dissent over the
process and allowed the congress to go forward with the
formulation and approval of the National Black Catholic
At the height of his career, Mr. Rowe was called on for his
perspective on major events affecting African-American
Catholics, whether it was being asked for reaction to the
naming of a black bishop, or condemning racism in both church
and society, or citing where the community’s focus should be
in the wake of disturbing news.
Mr. Rowe, whose birth name was Donald, was born Sept. 27,
1935, in Dalton, Ga., the only child of the late Helen
Brewington and Luther Rowe. He chose the name Cyprian when he
became a Marist brother in 1951 at age 15; he was the first
black member of his province.
He earned master’s degrees in English and comparative
literature from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where he
taught for two years. He also had a master’s degree and a
doctorate in African studies from Howard University in
Washington DC, and a masters in social work from the Catholic
University in Washington DC.
In the early ‘70s he studied African culture firsthand by
living in a small village in Ghana. He described the African
spirit as one “of community, a spirit of sharing. It is a
spirit of ‘we,’ not ‘I.’“
On one of his many trips to Africa, he met and subsequently
adopted Kweku Attah Rowe, who later married and had two
children whom he named Cyprian and Helen. He preceded his
adoptive father in death.
Mr. Rowe is credited with designing and directing the first
African-American studies program at the University of Rhode
Island, 1972-74, and at Temple University in 1978.
He constantly urged church leaders to recognize more fully
“the unique spiritual character and dedication” that
African-American Catholics bring to the church, cautioning
that “culture is still used as a way of gaining and
maintaining power.” This applies to the church, Mr. Rowe said,
because “the church is a sociological phenomenon within a
larger sociological phenomenon.”
After teaching at Temple and at the University of the District
of Columbia, in 1978 Mr. Rowe headed the National Office for
Black Catholics, which at that time included the National
Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, the National Black Sisters’
Conference and the National Black Lay Catholic Caucus.
The national office was founded in 1970 to promote black
clergy leadership, ministries reflecting African heritage, the
revitalization of black parishes and quality education for
black children. It sponsored workshops, conferences, public
forums, political networking and publishing.
In 1981, when Mr. Rowe became executive director of the
National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, he also earned a
master’s degree in social work from The Catholic University of
America in Washington. He then became a psychotherapist at the
Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
Until his retirement in 1999, Mr. Rowe taught at several
institutions, including Loyola University in Chicago and the
University of Maryland’s School of Social Work.
Mr. Rowe was a regular contributor to CNS’s religious
education series, Faith Alive!, in the early 1990s.
He is survived by his grandchildren, Cyprian and Helen Rowe of
Ghana; a cousin, Ernestine Mills of New York, N.Y.; an aunt,
Lottie Jackson of Cleveland; and several nieces and nephews.
Dec 3, 2008