New Archbishop Will ‘Come To Know The People’
Published: December 16, 2004
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory will succeed retiring Archbishop John F. Donoghue. Archbishop Gregory has been the bishop of Belleville, Ill., since 1994. (Photos by Michael Alexander)
ATLANTA—When asked to share some information about himself, Atlanta’s new archbishop Wilton D. Gregory began with a topic close to his heart—his family.
Raised in a single-parent home, Archbishop Gregory remembers his grandmother, who lived with the family after his parents divorced. Even though she didn’t attend weekly Mass, she was “very proud of her heritage as a Catholic.”
And when the St. Carthage Grammar School in his neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago started recruiting the neighborhood children as students, his grandmother and his mother enrolled young Wilton and his sisters Elaine and Claudia there.
“It was the fall of 1958,” he told The Georgia Bulletin in a interview on Dec. 9. “It was the conclusion of an extraordinary year for the church, both locally and nationally.”
He noted that many events had kept the Catholic Church in the forefront of the news, including the fact that Chicago had a new archbishop and that Pope Pius XII had died and was replaced by Pope John XXIII.
And Wilton D. Gregory Jr., age 11, embarked upon his Catholic school education.
Initially, he said, “I was enamored of two priests of the parish … I thought the world of these fellows.”
One was Father John M. Hayes, the pastor, and the other was Father Jerry Weber.
Six weeks into the school year, he told Father Hayes that he wanted to be a priest. Father Hayes, in turn, said, “Well, it might be helpful for you to be Catholic.”
His mother and his grandmother, “wise women” as they were, didn’t “get all bent out of shape about it … they figured that next week it would be a basketball player, then a fireman.”
But he didn’t change his mind about becoming Catholic, and he attended weekly private instruction.
At the Easter Vigil in 1959, he was baptized and received his First Communion. He was confirmed on Ascension Thursday later that year by Chicago’s Auxiliary Bishop Raymond P. Hillinger.
Years later, when Archbishop Gregory was installed as auxiliary bishop of Chicago, he was given Bishop Hillinger’s bugia—long-handled candlestick—the very one used at his confirmation years before. He clearly enjoys the continuity symbolized by that small legacy.
After finishing at St. Carthage in 1961, Archbishop Gregory went on to Quigley Preparatory Seminary, where he maintained his serious intention of becoming a priest—“as serious as a 13-year-old.”
He continued his Catholic school education at Niles College of Loyola and St. Mary of the Lake Seminary.
“I’m a ‘lifer,’” said Archbishop Gregory. He was ordained in 1973.
His mother and sisters are Catholic now, too. He said, “I’m still working on Dad.”
He expects that his family will be in town for the installation in Atlanta, which is planned for Monday, Jan. 17.
At the news of his promotion to archbishop, his mother cried. And his father, Wilton D. Gregory Sr., in a separate phone interview, said that the promotion was “something I expected … I think he deserves it.”
With quiet pride he shared that his son was “no trouble whatsoever” as a child, just “industrious and super smart.”
“Everywhere he goes,” he said, “they fall in love with him.”
Transitioning into his new job was one of a number of wide-ranging topics discussed by the new archbishop.
Archbishop Wilton Gregory shares a humorous moment with a Blessed Trinity senior religion class, Dec. 10.
“It’s important to … come to know the people and that takes time,” he said. “One of the classic mistakes of new pastors is to come in and begin with an agenda before he knows the people.”
He spoke about the growth of Catholic school education in Atlanta, as he is coming from an area where there are a lot of small rural Catholic schools.
“This will be the first pastoral assignment that I have been involved with that is in a growth mode because the archdiocese is expanding its population. Chicago was a diocese that was reformatting its Catholic presence. I was vicar for Cardinal Bernardin on the South Side of Chicago … so many parishes I had to consolidate—33 parishes while I was there.”
He noted that in Belleville, the consolidation of parishes is called “clustering.” The diocese there has many small parishes—small compared with Atlanta parishes—and has always had a number of parishes served by just one priest.
Archbishop Gregory said, “I had parishes of 110 households, another of 80 households. Some of them never had a resident pastor and had always shared. The (Belleville) diocese is looking at even more consolidation.”
He continued, “So here—in terms of Catholic education—Archbishop Donoghue has been fortunate. He’s been able to build Catholic schools in places that have never had Catholic schools. There’s a lot of growth, and I look forward to that.”
“Personally,” Archbishop Gregory said, leaning forward with enthusiasm, “I love kids.”
“There is absolutely nothing that I love better to do than to walk into a school classroom, create havoc and leave.”
He stated, “The kids are our hope … they’re the promise. You’ve got to let them know how wonderful they are and how much you love them.”
Asked about whether he feels he’s continuing in the legacy of the two African-American archbishops who preceded him in Atlanta the new archbishop said, “Certainly, I reverence the memory of Archbishop Marino and Archbishop Lyke. They were friends, colleagues. But I think in the intervening years, the archdiocese has really grown in so many wonderful ways under the pastoral leadership of Archbishop Donoghue that it’s really a brand-new assignment.”
Quoting the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, Archbishop Gregory said, “‘You can’t step in the same river twice.’ I mean, everything is changing, and so I come here knowing that I follow the pastoral leadership of spectacularly good men—all the archbishops ... I know that I stand on holy ground.”