After a lifetime of work for Black Catholics, Jacqueline Wilson is memorialized as a mentor and teacher
Jan 22, 2021
Jacqueline Etheridge Wilson was remembered at her Jan. 18 Funeral Mass for a string of accomplishments on behalf of Black Catholics, as a mentor, visionary, unfailing friend and the kind of mother, aunt, grandmother and great-grandmother who thought of “family” as a huge umbrella under which all were welcome.
The underlying theme of Wilson’s memorial service, though, was that all those attributes were rooted in her unfailing faith in God and her willingness to serve in whatever small or large way necessary. The service, which included tributes followed by a Mass, was held at St. Augustine Church in Washington, D.C. for a COVID-limited number of mourners, with broader participation over a live video stream.
Wilson, 83, was born Dec. 16, 1937, and died Jan. 8, 2021, at Seasons Hospice and Palliative Care Center in Wilmington, Delaware.
Among her many accomplishments, Wilson was a charter board member and officer of the first Black Catholic Secretariat of the Archdiocese of Washington, serving as executive director of the Office of Black Catholics from 1979-2002. She also was in leadership of the National Association of Black Catholic Administrators from 1974-2002.
Jacqueline Wilson, shown in a 1978 photo, became the executive director of the Archdiocese of Washington's Office of Black Catholics the next year. (Catholic Standard file photo)
“She was a teacher/preacher,” said homilist Msgr. Raymond East, the pastor of St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Washington. “She not only taught like Jesus, she preached like Jesus.”
Msgr. East made note of the funeral’s date, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and found a parallel between Wilson and King. “She was also a leader/follower…. She led like Dr. King, not putting herself first.”
Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory was the main celebrant for her Funeral Mass.
Other tributes at the celebration of life that preceded the funeral focused on Wilson’s leadership characteristics.
“When Jackie spoke, people were attentive,” said a tribute sent by Pam Harris, president of the National Association of Black Catholic Administrators. Harris called her “an influential, visionary leader,” who was known for motivating others to “go beyond” expectations.
Spouses Charlene and Michael Howard described Wilson having that kind of influence on their lives. Charlene Howard, a religion teacher at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, described herself and her husband as a products of Wilson’s mentoring. She said her friend “was probably the most highly respected Black Catholic in the Archdiocese of Washington,” who “made it possible for me to go up there and know I belonged there.”
Jacqueline Wilson is shown meeting with young Black Catholics in 1985. (Catholic Standard file photo)
Michael Howard said Wilson’s influence changed his life, beginning with his participation in a Black Catholic Revival begun in 1982, with significant organizing effort from Wilson who was a co-founder.
He said he considered Wilson to be the person called for by the prophet Ezekiel who would “stand in the gap before me.”
“You see the bishops over here,” Howard said, gesturing, “and the Black Catholics over there. She stood in the gap. She pulled the bishops over here and she pulled black Catholics over here. That was the beginning of the revival.”
Howard said at the time he went to the revival at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, he was adrift in life. But after joining in the revival, he felt called to stand up when the presenters made an altar call and walked to the front of the church where then-Cardinal James Hickey blessed him.
“That is what Jackie did for me,” he said. “She helped me to worship. She stood in the gap.”
Then Howard broke into song as he returned to his seat in the church, singing, “This is my story, this is my song, this is my Savior, all day long….”
Wilson’s son, John Wilson III, said his mother’s devotion to education helped lead him to a career “dedicated to fixing education,” beginning with him helping her grade students’ papers when he was a child.
Wilson added a note of levity, recognizing that he bears a strong physical resemblance to his mother. That has more than once, he said, led to him getting a notice from FaceBook that someone had posted a picture of him on another page. “God has a sense of humor. It was her.”
A native of Washington, Jacqueline Wilson’s influence eventually stretched beyond her beloved hometown to national and international roles in developing ministry by and for Black Catholics. She was a prolific writer of many reviews and articles. She authored a booklet on “Combating Racism” for the Archdiocese of Washington, and with Loretta Butler, she coauthored the booklet “O, Write My Name: African-American Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington, 1634-1990.”
In addition to helping organize the first Black Catholic Revivals for the Archdiocese of Washington, Wilson served as the administrator for the archdiocese’s Black Catholic History Project, she helped plan the Rejoice! Conferences on Black Catholic Liturgy, and worked with Leon Roberts, then the music director at St. Augustine Parish, to form the Archdiocese of Washington Mass Choir in 1983. Also during her leadership of the archdiocese’s Office of Black Catholics, Washington hosted the sixth National Black Catholic Congress in 1987, continuing the historic legacy of the first congresses for the nation’s Black Catholics that were held between 1889 and 1894.
“The Black Catholic church owes much to Jackie Wilson,” Msgr. East said. “Whenever anything got formed in the United States for Black Catholics …. Jackie was right there, pushing behind the scenes, she was a mother giving birth.”
In 1979, when Wilson was elected as the president of the National Association of Black Catholic Administrators, she said, “We (African Americans) have a rich history and contribution in this Church and in this world.” She stressed the importance of the Catholic Church’s ministry to Black Catholics, saying it offered “a sign and witness of the Church to evangelization.” Wilson added, “The Church should be countercultural and say, ‘We are universal, we are all people,’ and then be true to that.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in education at the Catholic University of America, Wilson began her professional life as an elementary school teacher, while also serving as a tutor for various organizations, as a parish council member and a catechist. She later earned a master’s in administration and supervision from Howard University. In 1973 she became a charter board member and officer of the first Black Catholic Secretariat in the Archdiocese of Washington.
Her work led her to an appointment by St. John Paul II as an observer and speaker at the 1997 Synod on Evangelization in the Americas, which brought her to South Africa for an evangelism conference. She also traveled to Germany, Paris, Mexico and Canada and extensively in Africa.
She retired to Wilmington in 2004 and was active there at St. Helena’s Catholic Church as a lector, member of the social ministry committee and the Diocesan Respect Life Committee. Wilson also was a volunteer for the St. Helena Parish social outreach office, was an adviser to the diocesan Ministry for Black Catholics and was active in the Knights of Peter Claver, Court 383.
Cardinal Gregory, in concluding the funeral Mass, said although Wilson retired before he came to the Archdiocese of Washington as the archbishop in 2019, their paths had crossed regularly over the years.
“The whole church owes an incredible debt to Jackie,” he said.
The cardinal noted that her funeral might have been held in many parishes in the archdiocese that could claim “she was ours.” But, he said, “she was all of ours."
This is the cover of the program for the tributes and Funeral Mass held for Jacqueline Wilson on Jan. 18, 2021 at St. Augustine Church in Washington and livestreamed for people who could not attend.
Wilson was the daughter of the late Robert Bruce Etheridge and Bessie Lee Dixon, and the mother of Margaret C. Holmes, John Hans Wilson, III (wife: Nanette Davis), Susan E. Childs (husband: Oliver B. Childs), and Jacqueline M. Wilson Asheeke. She was the sister of Phyllis Etheridge Young (deceased) and Marion Letitia Etheridge (deceased). Wilson is survived by her grandchildren Evette Pinder, Loryn C. Wilson-Carter (husband: Neal Carter), Kia C. Johnson (husband: Wayne M. Johnson), Toivo T. Asheeke, John H. Wilson IV, Douglas J. Lewis II (partner: Samantha Clark), Mweneni E. Asheeke (partner: Thibaut Barbey), Andre B. Childs Jr. (partner: Hanna Bayless), Andrea N. Wilson, Martha N. Herman-Asheeke, and John W. Caraway. She is also survived by her great-grandchildren Raegan A. Clark, Cameron O. Johnson, Zoe M. Johnson, Andre B. Childs Jr., and Remy N. Lewis.