The Rev. Rayford Emmons, the first African American Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, is entering his 50th year of service.
The Rev. Rayford Emmons, the first African American ordained Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, is entering his 50th year of service to parishioners. At 75, when most people have retired or are making plans to take that life-changing step, Emmons insists his ministry is a calling he has no plans to give up.
“First of all, I am in good health,” said Emmons, who serves as parochial vicar (assistant pastor) at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Mt. Airy. “Seventy-five is not what it used to be. There have been so many medical advances since I began my ministry. And I really love what I do. I thank God for the privilege of having served so many people as a priest in the Catholic Church for 50 years.”
Emmons said he loves teaching, and counseling – and couldn’t imagine giving it up.
“So many people my age retire and are bored stiff,” he said. “I am bringing people to the Lord. I am not overwhelmed by work and I love being able to help people. I am so fortunate because I am able to make people's lives more meaningful. Why would I stop?”
An assistant pastor at Holy Cross for nine years, Emmons has had a long association with Mt. Airy. In the 1970s, he was a seminarian with a field assignment there under Msgr. Charles Wood. “It was always a good experience,” said Emmons, who was also an assistant pastor at St. Therese's Parish from 1985-87 in West Mt. Airy.
Emmons grew up in West Philadelphia, where he was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“When I was 12 years old, I knew I wanted to be in public service, and thought I wanted to become a missionary,” he said. “When I became a Catholic, I learned that there were no Black priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia at the time, so it made sense for my mission to take place here and not in a foreign land.”
A significant period of his life was his attendance at Shaw Jr. High School in Southwest Philadelphia, he said.
“The principal at Shaw was a fantastic woman at giving the students the most opportunities possible,” he said. “She helped the students see the beauty in the diversity of their classmates: Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians, all felt confident and seen.”
At the main entrance of the school was the quote: “I thought I heard the voice of God and climbed the highest steeple. But, said the voice, ‘Go down again; I dwell among the people.’ According to Emmons, the fact that it was visible for all to see made the school “a safe space to speak about religion.”
Emmons started out at Overbrook High School. A year later he decided to transfer to St. Thomas More Catholic High School. At that time, however, students at Catholic schools had to be Catholic.
“So I converted,” Emmons said. “That took one year of instruction in the rectory during my 10th grade. At first, it was just so I could go to that school, but then I was so impressed. Never before did I see church people taking the time to be careful about what it means to be a real Christian.”
Regarding his parents' reaction to his religious conversion, Emmons said, “My father told me, 'Do whatever you want. Just don't wind up in jail. Just make good decisions.' I could always talk to him, and he was always encouraging. My mom worried more. She wasn't sure if I knew what I was doing. She wondered if I misunderstood what it meant to be a Protestant Christian.”
Emmons graduated from St. Charles Seminary on City Avenue, near St. Joseph's University.
Did he ever encounter racism as the first ordained Black Catholic priest in the city?
“My first parish was predominantly white,” he replied, “but it was easy for me to adapt to them because of my experiences in junior high school. Most people come to church because of what God can do in their lives. So if certain people say the wrong things, the good people shut them up.”
Emmons went on to serve in almost a dozen parishes throughout the area — urban, suburban, struggling and wealthy, diverse and non-diverse — ministering always with a joyful heart. For 11 years, he worked in North Central Philadelphia for the St. Elizabeth Parish, which has since been closed and consolidated into another one, St. Martin de Porres Parish, and is now doing well.
Despite the poverty and crime in that neighborhood, he said, “They have wonderful civic groups and neighborhood organizations and great enthusiasm for their community. They do the best they can for their kids, and they are so appreciative of the resources they do have in their community.”
Veronica Alvarado, director of marketing and development for Holy Cross Parish, shared a story that illustrates Emmons’ ministry. During Emmons' time at St. Andrews in Drexel Hill, a distraught parishioner called because the beloved family dog had to be put down after many years of illness. The family wanted the dog anointed before he was put to sleep.
“Without hesitation,” said Alvarado, “Father Emmons showed up and gently blessed the dog and put the family at ease. Thirty years later that parishioner still remembers the kindness and compassion of that night. That is one of many Father Emmons' stories; there are countless more. If you ask Father Emmons, he'd humbly say, 'I was just doing my job.'"
You can reach Len Lear at email@example.com.