BALTIMORE (CNS) — For the 50-plus years Father Donald Fest has been a Josephite, he has watched his Baltimore-based religious community unsuccessfully petition the Vatican to declare a universal Year of St. Joseph.

After decades of disappointment, Father Fest and his brother Josephites were elated when Pope Francis surprised the world in December by finally announcing a long-sought year that celebrates the husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus.

“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” said Father Fest, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Alexandria, Virginia. “St. Joseph is finally getting his due.”

The pope announced the Year of St. Joseph Dec. 8, 2020, the 150th anniversary of Pope Pius IX naming St. Joseph as the patron of the universal church. The church observes March 19 as the solemnity of St. Joseph.

The Josephites have a special connection to the declaration through Cardinal Herbert Vaughan, the English founder of the Mill Hill Josephite missionaries sent by Pope Pius IX to Baltimore after the Civil War to minister to freed slaves.

The Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, the American-based Josephites, split from the Mill Hill missionaries in the early 1890s to form an independent religious society that continues ministry to African Americans today in the Baltimore-Washington area, New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, parts of the American South and as far west as Los Angeles.

The community sponsors several schools that serve the African American community, including the nationally recognized St. Augustine High School in New Orleans.

Cardinal Vaughan had led a campaign in the 19th century that amassed 150,000 petitions he sent to Pope Pius IX to entrust the universal church to St. Joseph.

An 1835 painting by William Etty shows a young Louisa Elizabeth Rolls Vaughan, mother of English Cardinal Herbert Vaughan. The cardinal founded the Mill Hill missionaries in England, the religious community from which the Baltimore-based St. Joseph’s Society of the Sacred Heart split in the early 1890s. (CNS photo/public domain via Catholic Review)

“Cardinal Vaughan’s mother (Elizabeth Louisa Rolls Vaughan) is the one who inspired in him devotion to St. Joseph that would guide him throughout his whole life and even in founding this religious community of men,” Father Fest told the Catholic Review, the news outlet of the archdiocese.

“His idea was that as Joseph was the one that took Jesus to a foreign land — during the flight into Egypt — that Vaughan wanted to bring his men to foreign lands that did not know Christ,” the priest said. “And so he called Joseph the first missionary.”

It is said that Cardinal Vaughan’s mother prayed every day in front of the Blessed Sacrament, asking that her children would answer the call to religious life. She was the mother of 13, one of whom died soon after childbirth. Her five daughters became nuns and six of her eight sons became priests — three of them bishops, including Cardinal Vaughan. She died at age 42.

Throughout his ministry, Cardinal Vaughan promoted St. Joseph. He compiled a book of prayers and devotions to the saint and named both his missionary seminary in London and his religious community after St. Joseph.

The American Josephites continued that tradition after they split from the Mill Hill missionaries. The Josephites’ seminary, the first integrated Catholic seminary in the U.S., is named in honor of St. Joseph. It was founded in Baltimore and now is located in Washington.

Today the Josephites are known for promoting the 30 Days Prayer to St. Joseph, a meditation on the joys and sorrows of the saint. Each day of the prayer represents one year of the earthly life of St. Joseph with the Holy Family.

Father Fest said St. Joseph is regarded as a powerful intercessor because he is a protector. The saint protected Mary’s life and reputation when she was pregnant with Jesus and when they were searching for lodging in Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth. He also protected the Holy Family during the flight into Egypt and as Christ grew up.

“The whole thing he does is protect, protect, protect,” Father Fest said. “I think people see that and they want a protector, they want someone strong, they want someone who knows what it’s like to be without, someone who is a home-life man, a pillar of families.”

Bishop John J. Ricard, superior general of the Josephites, welcomed the Year of St. Joseph as a “special gift” from Pope Francis. His religious community has set up a page on its website with resources for the special year including video reflections from Josephite Father Joseph Doyle.

“In Scripture, Joseph is a man of few words,” said Bishop Ricard, a former auxiliary bishop of Baltimore who is the retired bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida, “but his example and his actions call out to us now and through the ages.”

The Year of St. Joseph runs through Dec. 8.