Saturday, January 31, 2009

First black priest ordained in Chicago dies

There's an interesting neighborhood component to this story about Rollins E. Lambert, a Catholic priest who died at 86 on January 25. Read the whole article, but let me highlight the neighborhood component...
In 1968, he was named pastor of St. Dorothy Parish on the South Side, becoming the center of a controversy that led him to brand Cardinal John Cody an "unconscious racist."
Born in Chicago of African-American and Cherokee Indian heritage, Father Lambert graduated from Mundelein Seminary and was ordained by Cardinal Samuel Stritch. He first served at St. Malachy Parish on the West Side, then as assistant pastor at St. Dorothy. He also spent seven years at the University of Chicago's Calvert House.

He was named pastor of St. Dorothy Church in 1968, touching off protests from supporters of the Rev. George Clements, the civil rights activist who was assistant pastor of the all-black church at 78th and Vernon. Protesters said Father Lambert was picked to bypass the more controversial Clements.

"He had a tough time of it then," said the Rev. Eugene F. Hemrick of Catholic University in Washington, who was a friend. "He called Cardinal Cody a racist, and the African Americans turned on him and called him an 'Uncle Tom.' He was getting it from both sides."

Clements said he and Father Lambert knew each other long before their paths crossed at St. Dorothy.

"I would not be a priest today if it were not for Fr. Lambert," Clements said. "We go way back to when I was a seminarian, and he was the only black priest in the diocese. He took me under his wing. He was a trailblazer, and I followed in his path."

During the St. Dorothy controversy, "There was never any distance between us at all," Clements said. "He said he would resign if I did not become a pastor. That's when the cardinal named me to Holy Angels Parish."

Two years later, Father Lambert asked for a transfer and was assigned again to the Calvert House. Before his second posting at St. Dorothy, he was at St. James Parish on South Wabash.

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