By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published January 20, 2005
Elaine Swenson recalled how her brother Archbishop Wilton Gregory liked as a boy to convert the kitchen table to an altar and say Mass.
“So we kind of had an inkling” of his vocation to the priesthood, she said with a smile.
And his eighth-grade teacher at St. Carthage School in Chicago had told her that “the nuns recognized he was an unusual child at an early age and kind of prayed in the convent and said we’re not going to interfere but pray in the convent, and it worked,” she said, adding that he had joined the church after coming to St. Carthage in sixth grade. “The nuns used to say he had a true vocation because he kept saying before he converted that he wanted to be a priest.”
After the Mass of installation for her brother as Atlanta’s sixth archbishop, Mrs. Swenson said that she and her sister and brother, growing up in a single-parent household after their parents divorced, were all blessed to have had “incredibly loving mentors” at St. Carthage School and the 350-family parish who were role models of light, love and dedication—like in the movie “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” She too joined the church, on Sept. 5, 1958, and went on to Catholic high school and college before earning a master’s from the University of California, Berkeley. She now serves the poor in the area of public health. “The priests and nuns were incredible, and the people in the community were so special and always believed in all of us and said ‘whatever you do in life be the best you can be, and you will succeed,’” continued Mrs. Swenson. “He was drawn to that, the example of their lives, and he said I can do that. I want to do that.”
She recalled how her grandmother, who, while not a Mass-goer, had been baptized Catholic and attended St. Benedict the Moor boarding school in Milwaukee early in the century, had a lot of respect for the Catholic Church and wanted her family to become Catholic. So she cut a deal with the parish priests where she “worked as a cleaning lady in the Catholic parish we were raised in, in order to pay tuition.”
And she said their mother Ethel, who lives in Chicago and also converted to Catholicism, used to tell her children they had the “gift of gab” and “to use it wisely, always speaking with love—and Wilton has.”
Their father, Wilton Sr., who lives in California, said their mother and grandmother wanted to send the children to Catholic school because of its reputation for good discipline and academics. “That’s where he went, and they threw the rabbit in the briar patch…He was just enthused with it,” he said. “He was a very special kid, very intelligent, never got into trouble, ambitious, industrious…He did so good at Carthage that his next step was going to a Catholic high school.”
Archbishop Gregory, 57, attended Chicago’s Quigley Preparatory, a high school seminary, Niles College (now St. Joseph’s College Seminary) of Loyola University, and St. Mary of the Lake Seminary. By the time he was 25 he was ordained a priest. He earned a doctorate in sacred liturgy at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome in 1980. And just 10 years after ordination and having served as an associate pastor and as a faculty member of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, he became the youngest bishop in the country, being installed as an auxiliary bishop of Chicago a few days after his 36th birthday in 1983. He served as the bishop of Belleville, Ill., from 1994 until his appointment in Atlanta and was the first African-American and Catholic convert to be elected president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a position he held from 2001-2004.
Father Gerard Weber, who had been a parish priest at St. Carthage and is now retired in Los Angeles, recalled Archbishop Gregory as being very helpful around the parish. He remembers him as particularly looking up to the pastor, the late Msgr. John Hayes, as “an excellent model of what a priest should be.” Archbishop Gregory “was a smart lad and a good student and helped us when we needed it… He’d help us with a summer program with young people, with children. We’d run a big summer program with 150 kids.”
Father Weber always sensed he’d go far in the church, recalling how one of his early assignments was at a predominantly white parish in Chicago. “He did a great job, the people loved him and sent him to Rome to get a doctorate in liturgy. He came back and was one of the youngest bishops in the country.”
Mrs. Swenson said that a very hard thing her brother had to do was to close St. Carthage while serving as auxiliary bishop in Chicago. And serving as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as the sexual abuse crisis unfolded in 2002, Mrs. Swenson spoke of the hardship her brother went through as he saw so many good, innocent priests who had dedicated their lives to the church being questioned. “I could see the pain in his face, I could feel the pain. I hope the way he handled the circumstances provided moments of love and action so that kind of thing never happens again. It was a sad moment for the church,” she said, emphasizing that the problem exists not only in the Catholic Church but throughout society.
She said her mother’s father was born in Georgia and it’s like coming full circle and “a returning of the energy” to have her brother shepherd the church here.
After the installation, Mr. Gregory said of his son that “when he gets to Atlanta the archdiocese will love him just like all other places he’s been. He seems to me to be very pleased. It’s an advancement, a promotion.”
Father Weber also believes Atlanta has a “great guy” for an archbishop. “He just got along well with people and was concerned about them. That’s sort of a bland (comment) but it’s the key thing about being a good priest,” he said. While at 87 Father Weber was unable to come to Atlanta “he really went out of his way to make sure I was invited to the installation.”