“Now he is gone to the ages.” Monsignor William J. Rodgers, aged 95, passed away on January 21st, 2018. A man of quiet grace and dignity, a man of great intellect, a man of unassuming holiness was in his own right a trailblazer. He was born on May 24th, 1922, in Charleston, South Carolina. The young William---affectionally called Buck by friends, after the great science fiction hero---and his family eventually settled in Brooklyn, where they worshipped at St. Peter Claver Church, then the only black Catholic parish in the borough. In time, he heard God’s call to serve at His altar. On June 11th, 1949, he became the first African American ordained to the priesthood in and for the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Faithful to his call, Monsignor Rodgers served as parochial vicar at St. Peter Claver, 1949-1952, St. Benedict the Moor 1952-1956, and St. Patrick, 1956-1969. He served as administrator of St. Patrick briefly in 1969, and pastor of St. Lucy-St. Patrick from 1973 to 1986. His last assignment was chaplain at Queen of Peace Residence, a nursing facility run by the Little Sisters of the Poor for the aged and infirmed. The nuns, and the elderly in their care, recounted how his ministry communicated to them the love of Jesus Christ. Sister Gabriel, one of the nuns there, called late Monday to say that it had been their dear priest’s last request to have gospel music played and sung at his Vigil Mass. Mr. Bourke and Mr. Murray, our parish musicians, happily obliged playing “We Have Come This Far By Faith,” “In That Great Gittin’ Up Morning,” and “Sweet Lamb of God.” I can say that Mass was one of the few times I saw priests and nuns, of all colors, tapping their feet and singing at full gusto.
Msgr. Joseph A. Nugent, the former pastor of Our Lady of Victory, preached at the said Mass. He mentioned that Msgr. Rodgers, in spite of great adversity, inspired others to love, know, and serve God. 66 years of history separate my ordination from his. Msgr. Rodgers served during a time when many were unsure if a black man could or should be a Catholic priest. Yet, he opened the door for those that would come after him. Fr. Mark Bristol, a priest of Afro-Guyanese descent, commented that seeing Msgr. Rodgers’ picture in the seminary gave him “a sense of peace knowing that I belonged here because of him.” The sense of history is not lost of me either. It never crossed the minds of my immigrant parents that their son would one day become a priest. My late Nigerian father had misgivings as he had seen very few black and brown faces, in chasuble and stole, grace the sanctuary. Today, I believe that things are changing, but there is still a long way to go. My prayer is that our sons and daughters answer God’s call to the priesthood and religious life as Msgr. Rodgers did so many years ago.
Hear with favor our prayers, which we humbly offer, O Lord for the salvation of William, your servant and Priest, that he, who devoted a faithful ministry to your name, may rejoice in the perpetual company of Your saints. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Fr. Daniel O. Kingsley