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Harold Robert Perry

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Harold Robert Perry

Harold Robert Perry, S.V.D. (October 9, 1916 – July 17, 1991) was an American clergyman of the Roman Catholic Church. An auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New Orleans for more than twenty years, he was the first African American to serve as a Catholic bishop in the 20th century.[1]

Biography

Harold Perry was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, to Frank J. Perry, a rice mill worker, and his wife Josephine, a domestic cook.[1] The eldest of six children, he was raised in a devoutly Catholic and French-speaking home.[2] At age 13, he entered the seminary of the Society of the Divine Word in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.[1] He continued his studies at ecclesiastical institutions in Illinois and Wisconsin.[1] In 1938, he took his vows as a member of the Divine Word Society.[3]

On January 6, 1944, Perry was

In 1958, Perry was named rector of his alma mater at the Divine Word Seminary in Bay St. Louis.[2] Becoming more active in the civil rights movement, he joined the National Catholic Council for Interracial Justice upon its founding in 1960.[6] Writing in the Catholic monthly Interracial Review in 1961, Perry wrote: "Catholic institutions could have won great respect among Southern Negroes if they had dropped segregation long ago. In many instances, segregation continues up to and including the Communion rail. We have missed a real opportunity to impress the Negro with the true attitude of the church."[7] In 1963, he and other religious leaders were invited to the White House to discuss peaceful desegregation with President John F. Kennedy.[1] Perry's tenure as rector came to an end in 1964, when he became provincial superior of the Southern province of the Divine Word Society in the United States.[2] That same year, he also became the first African-American clergyman to deliver the opening prayer in Congress.[5]

On September 29, 1965, Perry was appointed titular bishop of Mons in Mauretania and auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New Orleans by Pope Paul VI.[4] He was the first African American of the modern era to become a Catholic bishop. Announcing Perry's appointment, Archbishop Philip Hannan said, "We welcome the first American-born Negro bishop."[2] However, Bishop James Augustine Healy, the son of a white plantation owner and a biracial slave, holds the distinction of being the first African American to be elevated to the Catholic episcopate.[2] Perry's appointment was praised by many civil and religious leaders, including President Lyndon B. Johnson, whom Perry credited as having "accomplished more for our own people than any President since Lincoln."[8] However, Perry declared, "My appointment is a religious one, not a civil rights appointment. My religious work comes first. I have no desire to work directly as a civil rights leader."[8] He received his episcopal consecration on January 6, 1966, from Archbishop Egidio Vagnozzi, with Archbishops Philip Hannan and John Cody serving as co-consecrators.[4] White protestors held a demonstration outside his consecration, and one woman described it as "another reason why God will destroy the Vatican."[2][5]

As an auxiliary bishop, Perry served as pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church and St. Theresa of the Child Jesus Church in New Orleans, vicar general of the archdiocese, and rector of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor.[1][5] He lived in the rectory on the grounds of Ursuline Academy, the oldest girl's school in the United States. For many years he also served as national chaplain of the Knights of Peter Claver.[6] He remained an auxiliary bishop until his death at the age of 74, due to complications of Alzheimer's disease at Wynhoven Health Care Center.[5] Upon his death, Archbishop Francis B. Schulte said, "Bishop Perry's passing is a great loss not only to the church of New Orleans but to the church of America. As the first African-American bishop in this century, he was a symbol of the great changes which have taken place in our church and in our country. His long and effective service will be greatly missed."[1]

References

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