By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published January 20, 2005
In the late 1970s as a young priest and student in Rome, Father Wilton Gregory could often be seen blending in with other Italians, zipping around the city on his Vespa scooter.
Msgr. James Margason, Archbishop Gregory’s vicar general in the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., recalls fondly his time spent with the future archbishop while they both undertook graduate studies in Rome.
The two met in 1976, three years after Archbishop Gregory’s ordination for the Archdiocese of Chicago.
“He was studying liturgy, and I was studying canon law, but we lived in the same house,” he said. “What I remember most is his speeding around Rome on his Vespa. He really enjoyed that.”
Msgr. Margason was one of many friends of the new archbishop to attend his Mass of installation. It was an event that caused many to reflect on years of friendship with Archbishop Gregory and for others to be a bit reluctant to lose geographical closeness to him.
Father John Durbin, pastor of St. Thomas More Church, Chapel Hill, N.C., was one of the numerous friends who traveled quite some distance to celebrate the occasion with Archbishop Gregory. Father Durbin also studied in Rome during the same time period as Archbishop Gregory, and the two became friends many years ago. Smiling with excitement about the installation, Father Durbin talked about what a fine person his friend is.
“I think he’s a great leader with integrity and vision. He has a deep love for people that will serve him well here,” he said. “He is genuinely interested in people.”
Patti Schilling had served as Archbishop Gregory’s secretary in the Diocese of Belleville since 1998. She began her work in the diocese working as a parish secretary and then made the jump to serving as the bishop’s secretary after only one day of training.
“When I started here, it was really a learning experience, but we managed together,” she said.
As a boss, Archbishop Gregory has been a “great and caring person,” Schilling said, and she remains impressed by his pastoral skills.
“If there is ever an emergency, he’s there to face it. He’s never at a loss for words. He always just seems to know what to say in any situation,” she said.
Though she knew that Archbishop Gregory would “one day move on to bigger and better things,” the move is still a bit too soon for her.
“The last three years when he was president of the bishops’ conference, he wasn’t around much. I was hoping we’d have at least one more year with him after he was finished,” she said. “I’m happy for him, but I’m also sad.”
Schilling isn’t the only one to think highly of her boss.
“He doesn’t eat breakfast, but likes a cup of coffee,” said Mildred Phillips, Archbishop Gregory’s housekeeper while in Belleville.
“I came with the furniture,” joked Phillips, a petite, elderly woman. “He was a wonderful, wonderful boss and a dear friend.”
Phillips divulged that the new archbishop has many favorite foods. “He likes vegetables, Italian food … and loves his milk.”
She added, “I treated him as if he were one of my children. When he’d go on a trip I’d say, ‘Please drive carefully.’ And he’d tell me, ‘I will.’ I just love him.”
Sister Joyce Berkel, SSND, worked as the archbishop’s secretary for four years. On the day of his installation as Atlanta’s archbishop, she recalled his everyday graciousness.
“He’s a very good person and would often say thank you even for things you were expected to do.”
As for his management style, “he’s a person who knows what he wants, what he wants to accomplish.”
“He finds people to work for him and to do those things he wants to get done,” said Sister Berkel, who noted the archbishop’s emphasis on approaching issues pastorally.
“You’re very lucky to have him.”
Richard and Melissa Mark of Belleville have three children ages 30, 22 and 14. When their son married, Archbishop Gregory presided over the wedding ceremony. Now that his good friend has left Belleville, Richard said e-mail would be the best way to stay in touch.
Richard was president and chief executive officer of St. Mary’s Hospital in Belleville in 1990 when he first met Archbishop Gregory.
“He’s a great man, a special person. Whether you look at him as a man—a human being—or as an archbishop, there’s something very special about being in his presence.”
Also a Catholic, Richard commended his friend’s contribution to the Diocese of Belleville and his commitment to maintaining quality Catholic health care.
“He had a strong interest in preserving Catholic health care, and he did a lot to improve the status of those (in the inner city).”
Sheila Crowell, a member of the Diocesan Pastoral Council established by Archbishop Gregory in Belleville, said his most striking qualities include “his openness and his desire to listen.”
“I think he really, really wants to hear what all aspects of the church have to say . . . and he does listen and he acts on what he hears.”
In a farewell interview in Belleville, the archbishop described how much he valued “the candid conversations that have gone on with regard to issues facing the church” in the Diocesan Pastoral Council, Crowell said, as she awaited the start of the vespers service in the Cathedral of Christ the King on Jan. 16. He cited formation of the council as a key accomplishment in his 11 years in Belleville.
His warm relationships with Belleville staff and lay Catholics drew many to Atlanta for the installation events.
Tom Smith, director of pastoral services for the Diocese of Belleville, who came to the archdiocese for the installation events, along with Sue Huett, associate director of pastoral services, agreed that Archbishop Gregory is “very open . . . very candid” and added, “He is also very intelligent and very articulate.”
“He can state a vision of where the church is and is not and be quite inspiring,” Smith said. “His gifts are exceptional.”
Two lasting impressions he has of the archbishop are of his presence at the Diocesan Pastoral Council sessions and at parish confirmations, Smith said.
“In the Diocesan Pastoral Council meetings, he would always come to those in casual clothes—sweats, sneakers, a sweatshirt. I believe he did that intentionally to create openness,” he said.
Confirmation has always been an occasion for the archbishop to speak to young people and to their parents and ask youth questions and give them an opportunity to ask him questions.
“He had an excellent rapport with confirmation classes. He always used it as an opportunity to be personable, not only with the kids, but with the whole congregation.”
If the experience in Belleville is any indication, his friends and colleagues said, the Atlanta Archdiocese will be very lively under his leadership.
“He will bring a lot of energy. He will be involved in a lot of things,” Smith said. “He was running the national church and our diocese (simultaneously). He relied a lot on staff to initiate things and follow up on things and kind of let you go. He did not micromanage.”
Elaine Bernardin Addison mused at the coincidence that Archbishop Gregory has a sister named Elaine. For her, it was a day of similarities and connectedness to the past.
As she watched Wilton D. Gregory being installed as Atlanta’s new archbishop, she was reminded of the installation ceremony of her brother, Joseph, the cardinal of Chicago, who passed away in 1996, and who was a mentor to Archbishop Gregory.
“Today was beautiful. It brought to mind when my brother was installed in Chicago,” Elaine said. “(Archbishop Gregory) reminds me so much of my brother. He knows how to handle people. He’s very warm.”
She recalled that her brother actually ordained Archbishop Gregory as an auxiliary bishop of Chicago in 1983.
Cardinal Bernardin and Elaine were born to Italian immigrants in South Carolina, where she had lived with her husband, Jim, until they moved to Marietta about three years ago to be closer to their children and their families.
“It’s great for Atlanta,” said Jim, of the arrival of Archbishop Gregory. Jim and Elaine are parishioners at St. Joseph Church in Marietta. “I’m looking forward to having him,” he added.
Deacon Phil Gianatasio of Berwyn, Illinois, in the Chicago area, attended the seminary with Archbishop Gregory.
“He baptized all three of our children. You’re getting a very special man,” he said. “He’s competent, dignified and has the ability to communicate so effectively.”
Phil’s wife, Joyce Gianatasio, added wisdom to the archbishop’s list of attributes.
Sister Janet McCann, ASC, and Sister Jan Renz, ASC, Ph.D., grew nostalgic as they reflected on Archbishop Gregory’s support of their education ministry while watching the slide show of his quick visit to Atlanta in December during the installation Mass. Sister McCann, principal of inner-city, predominantly African-American, Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School in east St. Louis, recalled how the archbishop had volunteered to accompany her in visiting a potential donor to her school.
“It was very impressive and very effective and meant a lot to that donor that the bishop wanted to speak to him personally in the name of the diocese,” she said. “The day before he left, he wrote a letter to that person and asked (the donor) to continue to support the school. He had a million things to do. It shows his commitment to education and what the church is about in terms of Catholic education.”
She found him “great to work with” and likes his ability to reach out to all groups in the church.
“He has a lot of respect for Religious women. I think he understands the contributions Religious women make to the church,” she said.
“African-Americans are proud to claim him, but Catholics in general are proud to claim him … Many African-Americans in my school are non-Catholic, but they still claim him as their bishop. They really consider him like one of their pastors,” she continued. “For our African-American kids who are Catholic … it really is wonderful for them to see and dream about the type of leadership they can have. He’s helped us get an African-American Franciscan and a gospel choir.”
The sisters are part of a musical trio called the “Bad Habits” and would accompany Archbishop Gregory on Christmas Day and Easter to the local prison and jail for Mass. “We’d do music for him at the jails instead of going to some fancy ceremony. He had a remarkable way to give homilies that touched the people. He didn’t sugarcoat it. He just laid it out about why we’re here.”
Sister Renz serves as principal of Althoff Catholic High School for the Belleville Diocese and said her kids have commented, “What are we going to do without Bishop Gregory?” “I hope he still wears his Althoff High School jacket around here. We gave him a lot. He’s the kind of bishop I could always call or e-mail him if it was a real problem. I could talk to him. He doesn’t protect himself with layers and layers.”
She added that a farewell Mass for him had a gospel choir and liturgical dancers. “These are things that 15 years ago you might not have seen in our diocese.”
Sister Cecilia Hellmann, ASC, serves as coordinator of Hispanic ministry for the diocese and said that Archbishop Gregory established that office in 2001 to provide a more centralized response to their growing Hispanic presence, which the 2000 census reported at about 13,135 in addition to the many undocumented. Three churches hold a weekly Spanish Mass there, and a few more hold them less often. While one might catch him mixing in some Italian with his Spanish, he traveled to far corners of the rural diocese yearly to celebrate Mass, no matter how small the crowd, and to incorporate some Spanish into English Mass. He also attended two of three convocations on Hispanic ministry and promulgated a pastoral plan for Hispanic ministry. “This is our first year and we’ll be evaluating the responses.” She is grateful for his support of the ministry and his emphasis on inclusiveness of diverse groups. He showed “continuous support, and willingness to be attentive to the Hispanic people by being among them,” she said. “His interest and concern and real commitment were deeply appreciated by the Hispanics. They were so honored when he’d come to them when it was (only) 50 or 60” people.
Msgr. Margason said that in Belleville, a predominantly Caucasian diocese, Archbishop Gregory broke a lot of racial stereotypes.
“He always made sure to say that he was a bishop of all people, not just of the African-American community. And I really think he was perceived not only by Catholics but by the whole city as being a man of all people,” he said. “There is still a fair amount of prejudice in this part of the country, but Bishop Gregory really managed to break some of that down. It wasn’t by any direct action, but just by his presence and style, who he was that he did a lot to change people’s minds.”
“It’s just interesting that the most prominent citizen in Belleville, Illinois, turned out to be a black man.”
Msgr. Carl Scherrer, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church, in Columbia, Ill., said that the archbishop lifted a shadow from their diocese after he dealt effectively with their cases of priest sexual abuse. “He kind of dealt with that head on. He gave us hope we could come through that.”
He likes how Archbishop Gregory is both articulate and personable. The bishop was gone a lot with his national responsibilities but held weekly office hours for priests and didn’t try to micromanage them. When he came to parishes, he was open to doing what church leaders planned.
“When people were present for his liturgy they came away feeling good about being part of the church or being Catholic, and people who were not Catholic were impressed and complimentary,” he said. “He’s obviously a charismatic personality and a strong leader and very approachable and energized being around people, has a good sense of humor. That gave people hope.”
Gretchen Keiser, Suzanne Haugh, Priscilla Greear and Mary Anne Castranio also contributed to this story.