CLEVELAND — Fr Robert Pittman, SSS, a Black priest best known for his half-century of service at a Catholic communal farm he founded, was buried on Thursday at the Holy Family Chapel in Richfield, Ohio. He died on April 24th at 93 years old.
News of his passing was announced the same day by members of his congregation.
A member of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, Pittman seeded the Body of Christ Farm in Waldorf, Maryland in 1967 as a community dedicated to worship of Jesus in the Eucharist and the education of children preparing for First Communion.
Pittman was born in 1928 in Washington, DC and raised at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, a historic Josephite parish. Pittman later felt a call to the priesthood and traveled to Mississippi, where the nation’s first seminary for African Americans, St Augustine’s, had been founded by the Society of the Divine Word shortly before his birth.
He later returned home to help support his family, and was prevented for health reasons from returning to St Augustine’s or joining the local diocese. He entered the Sacramentinos in 1950, and was ordained in 1958 in Rome as the order’s second African-American priest (after Fr Joseph Nearon, SSS).
Pittman would go on to serve around the world, including his first assignment after ordination at his congregation’s seminary in Mozambique from 1959 to 1960. He then served in England, in his hometown of DC, and in Maryland at the farm. Related to the latter work, he also obtained a master’s degree in agriculture from the University of Maryland.
Pittman founded the Black Leadership and Christ’s Kingdom Society to foster interest in the work done at the farm in Waldorf, and was intent on connecting his order’s Eucharistic charism to social justice, having lived his entire life up to that point during the era of segregation and Jim Crow in the US.
According to their website, live-in members of the Body of Christ farm community reside on 106 acres of land and worship together in the compound’s Chapel of St Peter Julian Eymard, named after the founder of the Sacramentinos. Their youth outreach began some decades after the farm’s founding, after a local pastor sought Pittman and other members for assistance.
Pittman’s life story, including his work at the farm, was featured in the 2007 book “Yes! I Am Catholic”, a montage of stories from prominent Catholics around the country written by Beth Dotson Brown.
Pittman suffered a stroke in 2017 and relocated to the Regina Health Center near Cleveland, Ohio, where his religious province is headquartered. He would remain there until his death.
A memorial Mass for Pittman will be held at Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Waldorf on Thursday, May 5th at 12pm ET. Memorial contributions can be made to the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, 5384 Wilson Mills Road, Highland Heights, Ohio 44113 or the Body of Christ Farm, P.O. Box 410, Waldorf, Maryland 20604.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).