His Appointment ‘Broadened Vision Of The Church’
Published: December 4, 2008
Mayor Harold Washington, right, the first African-American mayor of Chicago, greets Bishop Wilton Gregory, left, and his parents, Ethel and Wilton Sr., seated in this 1984 photo.
ATLANTA—For many in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory goes by just that name. For others, particularly from his hometown of Chicago, it’s just Wilton.
From his middle-school days at St. Carthage Grammar School to his ministry as one of the auxiliary bishops there, friends and acquaintances with Chicago roots recalled Archbishop Gregory’s warmth, intellect and lovable laugh.
“He was a quiet guy who did his homework,” said Oblate Father Gerry Weber, a parish priest at St. Carthage when Wilton arrived in the sixth grade. “He was helpful around the parish.”
Adrian Dominican Sister Renee Richie, who lived at the parish and taught at the school, could say the same. While she did not have the young Wilton as a student, she fondly recalled his family, particularly his mother and grandmother.
“I remember my impression of them as being joyful and good. … There was a wholeness about them.”
The women, who were not Catholic at the time but later converted, had approached Msgr. John Hayes, the pastor, about sending Wilton to St. Carthage along with his two younger sisters. To pay for his tuition they both worked around the school and church doing general maintenance chores. The family even lived with the sisters in a guest room for a short time, according to Sister Renee.
“Everybody knew (Wilton) because his mother and grandmother and baby sister(s) were there all the time.”
They did everything, the sister recalled, adding, “They wanted a good education for their children.”
It wasn’t long before Wilton asked to join the Catholic Church, which he did at age 11. He went on to attend Quigley Preparatory Seminary South, Niles College (now St. Joseph’s College Seminary) of Loyola University and St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, and was ordained a priest by Cardinal John Cody on May 9, 1973. He credits the example of Father Weber and Msgr. Hayes, along with the sisters of the parish.
Father Edward Mikolajczyk, pastor of Queen of Martyrs Parish in Evergreen Park, Ill., recalled the “joyful day” when he, Archbishop Gregory and 36 other men were ordained priests.
“We were together for 12 years in the process of studying for the priesthood. On ordination day I remember how we felt the support of one another. That doesn’t always happen.”
Father Mikolajczyk first met classmate Wilton at Quigley, a high school for boys considering the priesthood. While the two did not have many classes together, he recalled that Wilton took Italian. “I guess he was preparing for his future whether he knew it or not.”
He was “very respected,” the priest added, saying Wilton was elected student council president his senior year.
“Wilton was just a friendly person. He stood out because of his wonderful laugh; it was infectious.”
The archbishop’s laugh was fondly remembered in an e-mail from a graduate school classmate, Father John Durbin, pastor of St. Thomas More Church in Chapel Hill, N.C. The two attended the Pontifical Liturgical Institute (Sant’ Anselmo) in Rome. Archbishop Gregory earned his doctorate in sacred liturgy there in 1980.
“One of my favorite memories from our time in Rome was his laugh. Really,” said Father Durbin. “He has a great sense of humor and laughs easily. He is quick with a response when teased. He always enjoys an intelligent verbal joust. To this day, any time we are out for dinner together, we always laugh a lot—and I know that he is this way with everyone. He is just very easy to like.”
Father Durbin recalled a trip the two, and other friends, took to Switzerland during wintertime. Wearing a hat had “completely ruined” his friend’s Afro “look.”
“So Wilton had to find a Swiss barber who was willing to cut his hair. The three of us who were on the trip insisted on going with him—we knew it would be entertaining. It was obvious that the barber had no idea what to do to cut his hair, and we sat and laughed as the man tried to figure it out. But Wilton enjoyed it as much as any of us, and made the barber feel completely at ease.”
Daughter of the Heart of Mary Sister Anita Baird pointed to the archbishop’s easy nature as an important trait needed to bridge communities in the Archdiocese of Chicago during his time as auxiliary bishop.
“People from all walks of life feel very comfortable with him; he wasn’t just a bishop for the African-American community but cared about all people. He had a rich gift for liturgy, prayer and song, too. He appealed to the broader community.”
Sister Anita’s friendship with the archbishop goes back to before he was appointed.
“When Cardinal (Joseph) Bernardin came to the archdiocese, a group of African-Americans came and asked for a meeting in 1982. One of my concerns, and we had several, was that there was not adequate representation of the black Catholic voice in the archdiocese. We asked for two things: the establishment of an Office for Black Catholics and also the appointment of an African-American bishop. He was very open to both.”
She described the main objective of their requests as having “a presence and voice at the table.”
“The main issue was very clear to Cardinal Bernardin, which was the opportunity for people to realize that it wasn’t so much the color of one’s skin but was the fact of the gifts one brought to the table. He broadened the vision of the church.”
There were older, more experienced African-American priests who could have been named as auxiliary bishop, but Father Wilton Gregory “came highly recommended.” He had taught at Quigley South and was a member of the faculty of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein. “He was always gifted, multitalented and good at welcoming people.”
Sister Anita explained the difficult task at hand of restructuring the archdiocese for the newly ordained auxiliary bishop and the three others ordained with him. In an address at the time, Bishop Gregory spoke of the repeal of restrictive housing covenants that had previously contained the black community to certain areas of the city and a subsequent pattern of white residents leaving neighborhoods.
Numerous parishes and schools became practically deserted in the inner city and many African-American Catholics felt abandoned when their parishes, once numbering about 90, closed. Now there are 29 mostly black Catholic churches in the Chicago area, according to Sister Anita, director of the Office for Racial Justice in the archdiocese. Today African-Americans comprise the smallest portion (3.9 percent) of the Catholic population there.
“In hindsight there are certain things we could have done differently and better,” Sister Anita said. “Bishop Gregory was instrumental in … pulling together a priests group and leaders in the black community. … (He) was always proactive. He believed we had some control over our destiny.”
She credits the archbishop’s humility in bringing people together. “He is a gift to the universal church; not just the local church.”
Evidence of this was his leadership of the U.S. bishops’ conference in the clergy sex abuse scandal, Sister Baird said. “We were able to survive through the horribly dark moment because of Wilton Gregory. The church in the United States owes him a huge debt. He paid a great price.”
Although that time for the church was painful, it was one of her “proudest moments” to hear the archbishop speak for the church. “People needed to hear someone they could respect and trust. … He rose to the occasion.”
Father Durbin also holds his dear friend in high esteem.
“As for what he does for the church now, Wilton has always been a moderate voice for peace and cooperation. He reaches out to others easily and naturally. And he truly loves his priests. He loves being with them, and he is very considerate of them,” he said.
One who can attest to that is Father Weber, now 89, who resides at St. John of God Retirement and Care Center in California.
“Every once in awhile I’ll pick up the phone and I’ll hear, ‘Gerry, it’s Wilton.’ He’ll say, ‘How you doing?’ and I’ll ask him how he’s doing. … He’s a man who keeps his word and does something about things. At least, that’s how I feel.”