Perry, Harold Robert

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Perry, Harold Robert

(b. 9 October 1916 in Lake Charles, Louisiana; d. 17 July 1991 in New Orleans, Louisiana), the first African American Roman Catholic bishop in the United States in the twentieth century.

Perry, one of the eight children of Frank Perry and Josephine Petrie, was born into a French-speaking family with a long Catholic tradition. His father was a rice mill worker and his mother was a domestic servant. At age fifteen, he entered Saint Augustine Seminary in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, to study with the Society of the Divine Word fathers, a German Catholic religious fraternity with a long tradition of ministry to blacks in the South. Ordained as a Divine Word father in 1944, he served parishes in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi, until being named rector of his alma mater, Saint Augustine Seminary, in 1958.

At that time, the Divine Word fathers’ integrated seminary was unique in American Catholicism. Relatively few seminaries accepted black applicants, and many dioceses declined to ordain black men. Many parochial schools refused Negro students, and Negroes and whites were frequently segregated during the celebration of Mass, particularly in the South.

Despite this hostile environment, Perry—a soft-spoken man known for his personal gentleness and his ability to work with both black and white Catholics—continued to be a pioneer in church leadership roles. In 1962 he was elected provincial of the Southern Province of the Society of the Divine Word, the first black man to serve as a major religious superior in the United States. He also served for many years as chaplain to the Saint Peter Claver Society, a fraternal organization largely focused on the needs of black Catholics, and as a board member of the National Council for Interracial Justice. He was among the religious leaders called to the White House to consult with President Lyndon Johnson at the height of the civil rights crisis in the summer of 1964.

Perry’s ordination to the rank of bishop was a national event. Perry’s cousin, Father Jerome LeDoux, described the 1966 ordination, held in Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans at a time of tense race relations in the South, as “the ecclesiastical equivalent of Jackie Robinson’s introduction into the major leagues.” Protesters outside the cathedral that day carried signs proclaiming, “God does not recognize Negro priests, bishops” and “We don’t want a nigger bishop.”

Archbishop Philip M. Hannan of New Orleans called Perry a pioneer who, “as with all pioneers, suffered from it.” A fellow black bishop, John H. Ricard, noted that at the time of Perry’s ordination, there were almost no black leaders in government or in the Catholic Church. “Bishop Perry took the brunt of the resistance,” said Ricard. By the time of Perry’s death, there were a dozen African American Catholic bishops in the United States.

Perry himself did not believe in militancy, and he was uncomfortable in the limelight. Still, in a low-key manner, Perry helped the church come to grips with the ramifications of the civil rights struggle, and while still a parish priest, he worked to integrate his Lafayette diocese parish in Broussard, Louisiana, which was a center for black Catholic life in the United States.

“As a priest, I have found the most success in approaching the problem of race relations through kindness, charity and Christian love,” Perry said in a 1965 interview. In that same interview, he acknowledged the need for nonviolent demonstrations to draw attention to racism. “God’s justice is at stake more than the fact that Negroes have not received their due,” he said. “No matter whether a person is of high station or low, if he is deprived of his rights as a human being, God’s justice is offended.”

During a time when Malcolm X and other black leaders began calling for racial separatism, Perry professed his belief in unity between blacks and whites, both inside and outside the church. “Integration expresses in one term the unity that God intended for the whole human race. This is traditional Catholic teaching,” he said. LeDoux noted, “Father Perry served in a quiet, unassuming, nonthreat-ening manner which stirred the impatience of some activists but moved most people to admiration.”

As bishop, Perry consulted six times with Pope Paul VI and served on a number of committees for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, where he was instrumental in the formation of the Campaign for Human Development, the domestic antipoverty effort funded by U.S. Catholics. He also was on the board of the Urban League. As the only American black bishop, he frequently spoke at national conferences. His duties in the Archdiocese of New Orleans included service as pastor of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor in New Orleans and Our Lady of Lourdes. He was also vicar of religious life for the archdiocese, supervising the reforms that took place throughout Catholic orders as a result of Vatican II.

A regular patron of the fine restaurants of New Orleans, Perry often ministered to the staffs there by hearing confessions from the kitchen help and waiters. He was a supporter of the reforms of Vatican II, which included a renewed emphasis on ministry with the poor and involvement of priests, brothers, and nuns in addressing social ills.

In 1985, beset by failing health and afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease, Perry retired. He died six years later and was buried in New Orleans at Saint Louis Cemetery. At Perry’s 1991 funeral mass, Hannan commented, “There are no pickets tonight. There are only mourners and loving, devoted friends and supportive members of the flock of Christ.”

Perry’s career is recounted extensively in the Clarion-Herald, the newspaper of the Catholic archdiocese of New Orleans, particularly in issues marking his ordination as bishop (7 Oct. 1965), the observance of his tenth anniversary as a bishop (22 Jan. 1976), and his death (1 Aug. 1991). Other obituaries and commentary on Perry’s life are in Commonweal,“Looking Ahead, Black Catholic Bishops” (4 Oct. 1985); Washington Post, (19 July 1991); Chicago Defender,“Rites for First Black Catholic Bishop,” (20 July 1991); New Orleans Times-Picayune,“Perry’s Humility Remembered,” (23 July 1991); and Jet Magazine, “First Black Catholic Bishop Named in Twentieth Century Dies,” (5 Aug. 1991).

Peter Feuerherd

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Perry, Harold Robert

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