At the April 4 press conference on the morning when Pope Francis had named him as the next archbishop of Washington, Archbishop Wilton Gregory was asked about that new chapter in his life, but also how his own journey of faith had begun, and how he had kept the faith over the years.

In 1958 at the age of 11, he began attending the sixth grade at St. Carthage School in his home city of Chicago. At the press conference, he noted that he was so inspired by the gentleness, compassion and outreach of the parish priests and Adrian Dominican sisters there “that within six weeks of being in Catholic school, and not being from a Catholic background, I said, ‘I want to be a priest.’”

Young Wilton Gregory was baptized as a Catholic during the Easter Vigil that school year. His two younger sisters, Elaine and Claudia, also attended that Catholic school. He later entered the seminary and in 1973 was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago, where he was consecrated as an auxiliary bishop in 1983 at the age of 36, becoming the nation’s youngest bishop at that time.

In 1994, he was installed as the bishop of Belleville, Illinois, and from 2001 to 2004 he served as the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, becoming the first convert and first African-American in that role. Under his leadership, the conference implemented the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. From 2005 until his 2019 appointment to Washington, he served as the archbishop of Atlanta, leading that archdiocese through a period of growth.

Archbishop Gregory reflected on the roots of his faith journey in a 2008 column for the Georgia Bulletin newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago, writing:

“I am a Catholic today because of a Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Chicago. St. Carthage was a small parish school on the south side of Chicago. The 1950s saw swift and sweeping neighborhood racial changes in the city, drastically impacting parish school populations, so the pastor of the parish at the time and the Adrian Dominican principal decided to invite non-Catholics who were largely African-Americans to enroll in the school.

“I was one of those invited non-Catholic kids.”

In that column, Archbishop Gregory noted that St. Carthage School had a small but dedicated staff of eight Dominican sisters, two lay teachers, and a part-time teacher who helped stage a spring musical talent show.

The archbishop wrote that, “… The atmosphere at St. Carthage was unquestionably that of a Catholic school. The teachers allowed the Catholic faith to touch and be reflected in each subject: history, geography, language arts, spelling and, of course, the daily opening class of religion. We prayed before classes began and before we recessed for lunch. We had weekly school Mass.

“The environment exuded the pride and joy the teachers had in the Catholic faith. And one of the lay teachers was not a Catholic herself! Such an environment had a profound impact on me as a young sixth-grade student. I desperately wanted to join this faith that was such a source of delight and satisfaction in the lives of the priests, sisters and most of the other students. No one pressured me to become a Catholic—and, in fact, many non-Catholic students never did join the Church. But I was mesmerized by all that I was learning about Catholicism.”

Concluding that column, Archbishop Gregory wrote that St. Carthage School’s “atmosphere of faith, excellence and joy… caused a certain young man to seek out the baptismal font… and eventually the priesthood of Jesus Christ.”

A family photo shows Wilton Gregory as a young child. Archbishop Gregory, a native of Chicago, is the son of Wilton Gregory Sr. and Ethel Duncan Gregory, who are both deceased. He has two sisters, Elaine and Claudia. (Georgia Bulletin photo)

At the press conference, Washington’s archbishop-designate expressed the gratitude he has felt for the parish priests and Adrian Dominican sisters at St. Carthage, saying he remained Catholic throughout his life “because of the images and the witness of those men and women I first met.”

At St. Carthage, he received instructions in the faith from the pastor, Msgr. John Hayes, who became known for his work promoting Catholic social justice issues. The future archbishop was also inspired by another parish priest, Father Gerry Weber, who became a noted writer of books on the Catholic faith for children and adults.

Archbishop Gregory told the Washington media that the memory of those priests strengthened his resolve during the abuse crisis in 2002 when he led the bishops’ work on the child protection charter, because in that role, he also wanted to defend the good names of faithful priests like the ones who had inspired them.

His voice breaking, the archbishop said, “I was going to do everything I could to make sure their reputations were protected, honored and respected.”

His enduring gratitude for the Adrian Dominican Sisters was expressed in a 2017 Georgia Bulletin column, where he noted that during part of his summer vacation, he had driven from Atlanta to Michigan:

“I visited the motherhouse cemetery in Adrian, Michigan, where many of the wonderful Adrian Dominican sisters who taught me and my sisters are now resting in peace. I offered a little prayer of gratitude at each one of those gravesites to bless them and to praise God for the gift of those fine women religious who had spent so much of their lives in service to God’s people – and especially to me as a student and young man who eventually prepared to become a priest.

One week before Pope Francis named him as the new archbishop of Washington, Archbishop Gregory quietly marked a personal milestone, celebrating a Mass at Atlanta’s chancery to mark the 60th anniversary of his own Baptism.

In column for the Georgia Bulletin posted on April 4 – the day when his life’s new path was announced – Archbishop Gregory reflected on the day six decades earlier when he became Catholic:

“March 28 was Holy Saturday in 1959, and I became Catholic at the Easter Vigil. Most Catholics may not remember their own Baptisms because they were babies. I was 11 years old and I can still remember tilting my head over the baptismal basin and feeling the water pour over my forehead. Later at that same Mass, I received the Eucharist for the first time…

“In 1959, I was a new student in a Catholic school where most of my classmates were Catholics. I wanted to belong. I was so excited to become a Catholic – with the frenzied enthusiasm of a youngster of that age. I have never lost that desire. Over time I have come to understand the personal impact of that event on my life with a much more profound appreciation.

“…Through Baptism, I became a member of the same worldwide church. No matter where the sacrament is celebrated, Baptism places each person within our universal family of faith. In a few weeks, thousands of people will join the same family of faith through their own Baptisms. Many others at the vigil will be sealed with the Holy Spirit in Confirmation and fed with the Eucharistic Lord in Holy Communion for the first time. Christ’s family will grow through these sacramental events.

“I treasure the precious memory of my Baptism… So much has happened in my life during the intervening years since 1959 – moments of great joy as well as moments of deep sorrow. Nevertheless, I have never regretted becoming a member of this faith family – although some days have been happier than others, just like life in ordinary families.”

Archbishop Gregory concluded his column by writing, “In a few weeks, when our new Catholics will be recognized at your parish on Easter, please make sure you reach out to them and tell them, ‘Welcome to the family!’”