It was early 2005 and Archbishop Wilton Gregory had just moved to Atlanta and was still getting a handle on his new assignment.
My mother, who was visiting from Chicago, called me at work to say she’d like to meet the new archbishop. “Good luck, he’s a busy guy,” I said, trying to dissuade her. “You’ll have as good a chance getting in with the governor.”
Two hours later, Mom called back. “What are you doing at 3:30 Thursday afternoon?” she asked.
“Because you and your kids are coming with me to see the archbishop,” she said.
My mother, the former Helen Gilligan from Limerick, Ireland, pulled a trump card with Gregory. She mentioned Sister Marie Philip Doyle, my “great-aunt,” to the archbishop’s secretary.
Next thing you know, Mom and I, along with my wife, Julie, and our four kids in their Catholic school uniforms were crowding into his office.
The story begins in 1958, when the Gregory family moved into the St. Carthage parish in Chicago’s South Side. At the time, St. Carthage was a white, working-class neighborhood undergoing a rapid and epic racial change. Chicago’s black population grew from 278,000 in 1940 to 813,000 20 years later.
“That had a direct impact on the parish,” Gregory told me last week. “So Sister Marie Philip, your great-aunt, who was the principal, and the pastor, Monsignor John Hayes, decided to welcome African-American kids into the school because there’d be empty seats.”
(A clarification: Sister Marie Philip, born to an Irish immigrant family in Chicago, was my grandmother’s cousin, which makes her my first cousin twice removed. Calling her “aunt” was just less weird.)
“Sister Marie Philip and another sister, they traveled in pairs in those days, were canvassing the neighborhood and knocked on my family’s door,” the archbishop recalled. The nuns were looking to coax incoming black families to attend their grammar school.
“We’re not Catholic,” young Wilton’s mother, Ethel, told the nuns.
Doesn’t matter, Sister Marie Philip responded, we’d be pleased to have him and his two sisters attend.
Gregory’s grandmother, Etta Mae Duncan, who worked as a domestic, agreed to do the convent’s laundry and prepare the sisters’ Sunday dinner in lieu of tuition.
When Gregory entered sixth grade in the fall of 1958, there were maybe eight black students in his class of 45.
“Every Monday it seemed there were announcements of white students being replaced by black students,” he recalls. At year’s end, perhaps 10 white kids remained.
It was a turbulent time. I grew up two parishes to the west, in St. Kilian, and the same thing happened there eight years later.
“That was courageous on her part and on Monsignor Hayes’ part; they worked in tandem,” Gregory recalled. “It was evangelism, welcoming the African-American kids, many of whom were not Catholic, like myself.”
It was a time where unscrupulous real estate agents employed “block-busting” tactics to get worried white families to sell low and incoming black families to buy high.
“Obviously, there was a lot of fear as (white) parents saw the change in the racial composition at the school,” Gregory said.
Sister Barbara Long, who taught Gregory in seventh and eighth grade and is still active in the Monterey Archdiocese in California, said, “There was a lot of unhappiness in the South Side of Chicago. There was animosity. Some African-American kids had to endure prejudice. People were bitter.”
But the principal, the nuns and the pastor, who later marched in Selma, Ala., maintained discipline and helped meld together a relatively comfortable and cohesive school.
“We had a nice oasis of peace,” said Sister Long. The school created textbooks to help explain the faith to the new students, she said — a move that was ahead of its time.
Gregory, 71, said the solemnity of the religion (the Mass was still in Latin) and the gracious kindness of the nuns and priests caused him to choose to be baptized a Catholic. Later, he was ordained a priest. And when he became an auxiliary bishop at age 36, he was one of the youngest ever in the United States.
In the 1980s, he was assigned the tough task of consolidating or closing many of the old Chicago churches that were unused or underused because of white flight.
“The first parish I had to preside over for closure was St. Carthage,” he said.
In the early 2000s, he served as the first black president of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops and was the point man for addressing the long-hidden sexual abuse scandal in the church. Time magazine named him its Person of the Week in April 2002.
In January 2005, he was installed as Atlanta’s archbishop and two weeks later had an office full of Torpys. With uncanny memory, he recalled almost the exact week and that my mom handed him rosaries to bless for my twins’ upcoming First Communion.
Some eight years later, he presided over their Confirmation at a packed St. Thomas More Church and told the story of Sister Marie Philip coming to his house and his journey since.
“And now 55 years later,” he said, choking up, “I’m confirming that good sister’s grandnephews, Liam and Fred Torpy.”
Believe me, it caused many heads to swivel our way in shock and befuddlement.
I asked why he got so emotional.
“It was a touching moment for me,” he said. “I had entered the Catholic Church because of that wonderful sister and the priest. They had given me encouragement to enter the church and later to become a priest. Here I was going full circle, confirming her grandnephews. It really was touching.”
Now he will become the first African-American archbishop of Washington D.C., one of the premier gigs in his chosen field. He will almost certainly finally get his red cardinal’s hat.
A couple of summers ago, he drove to Michigan to visit the grave of Sister Marie Philip Doyle and “say a prayer of thanks for that great woman.”
And the providence of a long-ago knock on his front door.
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