Skip to content

Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago retires, widening Black episcopal void

With the retirement of the 75-year-old prelate, there remain only four active African-American Catholic bishops, three of whom were born in the U.S.

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago speaks at the Missouri Catholic Conference Annual Assembly in 2018. (St. Louis Review)

Just four months after being appointed to head the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry of Chicago has retired from episcopal office following a quarter-century of service.

The news was announced by U.S. Apostolic Nuncio Christophe Pierre on September 19 and shared by the USCCB, which is now at its lowest number of Black Catholic bishops in nearly 50 years. 

Perry submitted his age-mandated resignation request to Pope Francis in April on his 75th birthday, and its acceptance this month comes alongside that of a fellow Chicago auxiliary, Bishop Andrew Wypych, who retired for health reasons.

“We are blessed to have had the service of Bishops Perry and Wypych for so many years,” said Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, who has served as archbishop there since 2014. 

“They have made significant contributions to the life of the Church both as priests and as episcopal vicars, and I am grateful for their ministry.”

Cupich noted that Perry will continue in his role as diocesan postulator for the canonization cause of Venerable Augustus Tolton, which he has headed since its inception in 2010. Cupich also said that the retirements of Perry and Wypych will not result in the appointment of any new Chicago auxiliary bishops for now. Instead, Perry will be replaced in his role as overseer of the local Vicariate VI region by Auxiliary Bishop Kevin M. Birmingham, while two other vicariate posts will be filled by non-episcopal priests. 

As such, for the first time since 1995, Chicago will be without a Black Catholic serving as an auxiliary bishop, a tradition that began more than a decade prior with now-cardinal Wilton Gregory. (His departure to head the Diocese of Belleville in 1994 resulted in a brief vacancy, soon filled by the late George V. Murry, SJ.)

Born and raised in Chicago, Perry was ordained for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 1967 following his graduation from a local high school seminary. He had studied for several years with the Capuchin Franciscans, who he says inspired him to the cause of social justice.

Perry served for several years as a parish priest in Milwaukee before matriculating to the Catholic University of America to obtain a degree in canon law, after which he began service in the Milwaukee chancery and as a professor at the local seminary. He returned to pastoral work in 1995 and was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago by Pope John Paul II three years later.

Perry’s retirement had been speculated to be delayed due to his connection to the Chicago Archdiocese, one of several American episcopal seats whose occupant typically sees an elevation to the College of Cardinals, as with Cupich. Such prelates’ tenures are often extended beyond the usual retirement age of 75, and their auxiliaries have enjoyed similar privileges in some cases.

Unconfirmed reports had Perry announcing his impending retirement date as July 1 at a Mass earlier this year, leaving some Catholics waiting in suspense. Perry has long been championed in Chicago for his devotion to conservative liturgy, and his departure leaves what some would view as a void for high-powered local defenders of the Traditional Latin Mass.

So, too, comes an expected gap for the two USCCB committees of which Perry was the head, including the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism—in which he succeeded Archbishop Shelton Fabre of Louisville—and the Subcommittee on African-American Affairs, which Perry has chaired since 2004.

The USCCB has not officially announced any succession plan for either committee in the wake of Perry’s retirement, and it is not clear whether an inactive prelate can continue to serve in such roles.

According to a report from The Pillar last week, Perry has spoken with USCCB president Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Military Services concerning the unclarity. Broglio, seen by many as an archconservative element within the U.S. episcopal ranks, appointed Perry to lead the anti-racism committee in the spring—with the news being officially announced just weeks after Perry’s 75th birthday.

While it is not a requirement that either committee be led by a Black bishop, it has traditionally been the case with the Subcommittee on African-American Affairs. The anti-racism committee has also had Black leaders since its creation in 2017 after the Charlottesville car attack—in which a White Supremacist drove through an anti-racist protest, killing one and injuring 35 others.

Filling the two posts could now prove a tall task, however, with only four active African-American Catholic bishops remaining in the United States—the lowest count since 1976, when the first crop was appointed in the wake of Black Catholic demands for more episcopal representation.

The numbers peaked in succeeding decades, featuring as many as thirteen active Black bishops in the U.S. on two different occasions between 1988 and 1999—with Perry’s own appointment tipping the scales in the latter instance. Retirements and deaths have since brought numbers to a critical level, combined with scandal-fueled resignations and a lack of Black replacements from the Vatican. 

Pope Benedict XVI appointed only two new Black bishops during his eight-year tenure, one of whom was Haitian-born and already in his 70s. Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has appointed three—one of whom, Auxiliary Bishop Roy E. Campbell Jr. of Washington, was also near retirement age (and is now 75). Another, Auxiliary Fernand Cheri III, OFM of New Orleans, died in March.

As of the time of this writing, Perry joins a group of retired African-American bishops that now outnumbers the active, seven to four.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

Want to support the work of BCM? You have options.

a.) click to give (fee-free) on Zeffy

b.) click to give (fee-free) on Facebook