By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
Three Hail Marys. It doesn’t sound like much, but Deacon Stephen Hopkins, 78, a permanent deacon since 1982, remembers it was a Sister of the Blessed Sacrament who told him, “If you always say three Hail Marys a day you won’t die without the Blessed Sacrament.” It was so long ago that he doesn’t remember whether it was one of the Sisters from St. Catherine of Siena Parish who taught him catechism in Germantown or, a little later, when as a Catholic convert he attended Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament School on Broad Street.
Both parishes are long gone but Deacon Hopkins is still saying those Hail Marys and then some.
He’s always had a devotion to our Blessed Mother, especially since her birthday is celebrated on his birthday – Sept. 8. Those three Hail Marys have helped him through some fairly rough times.
After Blessed Sacrament School he went on to Mastbaum High. His mother, a widow since he was 4, was struggling to making ends meet, so in 1950 he joined the Army so he could send some money home to her. A month after he joined the Korean War broke out, and after a few months training he was shipped over as an infantryman. He saw serious fighting for about six months until February 1951, when he was captured.
Prisoners of war are often treated badly, and he knew bad things happened on both sides. For example some of the R.O.K. (Republic of Korea) soldiers fighting alongside the Americans would simply shoot prisoners.
“Thank God I never mistreated prisoners myself,” he said, “but I saw it happen.”
Actually, his captors weren’t always gentle. If one didn’t move fast enough there might be a rifle butt, and sometimes passing civilians would throw rocks or spit on them.
“If you moved fast, acted dumb and acted crazy you didn’t have trouble,” Deacon Hopkins remembers.
He prayed a great deal, especially those three Hail Marys. On special occasions when the prisoners would be allowed a prayer service, for instance Christmas or Easter, he would lead the rosary.
“It was the Blessed Mother and my guardian angel that got me through,” he said.
At war’s end in 1953 he was released and came home to Philadelphia. In 1955 he married his wife, Gloria. They settled in St. Benedict Parish, where they’ve lived for 52 years, and raised four children, Stephen, Gwendolyn, Gregory and Omar. After driving a cab for eight years he embarked on a 30-year career with the telephone company.
Always an active volunteer in the parish in whatever was needed, be it a bingo caller, altar server or usher, when the permanent diaconate was established, he was asked by his pastor to enter the program. “I didn’t know anything about deacons or what they did,” he said, “but I said I would give it a try.”
His ordination class of eight African-American men in 1982 was the second in the diocese, and he quickly got down to the work deacons do, especially visiting the sick in their homes or hospitals and bringing the Eucharist and preaching, something he still does on a monthly basis.
Prayer remains as important as it was when he was a prisoner, in sickness and in health. There is the rosary, services at St. Benedict’s for veterans’ groups and also the weekly novena at the Miraculous Medal Shrine in Germantown, where his mother and godmother always prayed. And yes, there are still those three Hail Marys.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.