Rowe's Leaving Is a Way to 'Stop Colluding.' (Black Marist Brother Cyprian Rowe Leaves Catholics to Join Break-Away Archbishop George Stallings' African American Catholic Congregation; Includes a Chronology of Stallings' Imani Temple)

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WASHINGTON--Two recent events in the life of former Marist Br. Cyprian Rowe seemed to serve as both prod and invitation to move beyond his Roman Catholic boundaries.

But his decision to leave the Catholic church and to be ordained as priest and bishop in the African American Catholic Congregation, established in 1989 by the former Roman Catholic priest (now Archbishop) George Stallings, has roots that go far deeper than recent months. The decision in many ways is the culmination of a lifetime of struggle within an institution that, he believes, never took black issues seriously.

One of the two recent events to affect Rowe was his mother's death in May 1996. Of her death, the African-American scholar -- one of the first to receive a doctorate in African-American studies from Howard University -- said, "I was confronted with a real freedom that I had not experienced. No one was depending on me any more.

"I had lived outside the Marist community for all these years because there were always concerns -- my parents," said Rowe, whose father died earlier. Rowe was teaching at institutions where African-Americans were involved as students or faculty. He also was helping his parents physically and financially as they aged.

Following his mother's death, he said, aI had to make some really critical decisions -- whether or not I could go back and live in what basically is a white community, for I was the only black brother. I realized I couldn't do that."

The second event that confirmed Rowe in his move occurred in the wider U.S. Catholic church. "I want to make it very clear," he said during an NCR interview, "that one of the things that helped me make the decision was when that Common Ground group, when the list was published, and there was no African-American. There was no African-American! What does that mean?

"If indeed Cardinal Bernardin was the best of the best," Rowe said, "and this is his project, and it is not important enough for us to be there, I decided it was best to stop colluding. It was getting to be a sin not following what the Lord was calling me to."

Rowe's was not a decision made in youth or haste -- and it was as personal as the decision he made as a five-year-old when he told his mother, a Methodist, that he had decided to become a Catholic. His influence was the nuns and children in the church and the school across the road from the home of the person who watched him after school. He was baptized two years later.

Rowe was born 61 years ago in Dalton, Ga. Raised in Chicago and New York City, he joined the Marist Brothers after he had completed his sophomore year at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx.

After college graduation he taught in New York, received his master's degree in English and comparative literature from Hunter College and then taught at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., until 1968, when he began his Howard University studies. From 1970-72 he lived in Ghana doing research.

He started the black studies program at the University of Rhode Island in 1972, joined Temple University's Pan-African studies program in 1974 and stayed four years.

Though he would give talks and workshops, Rowe was marginal to black Catholic issues in those days, he said. That changed when in 1978 he joined the National Office for Black Catholics, an organization loosely affiliated with but outside the U.S. Catholic Conference, though dependent on diocesan collections for survival.

By 1981 he was executive director of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus.

"I don't think the issues have changed over the years," he said, "but there is the notion that people grow up. There is a need for people to direct their own lives, that people must not always be a subset of something much larger and more important than they." Black Catholics, he said, are patronized by the church, "always, always. …