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Fr Charles D. Burns, SVD dead at 90

A newsmaking African-American priest and cousin to Thea Bowman who made waves in the Civil Rights and Black Catholic Movements passed away this month in Los Angeles.

Fr Charles Burns, SVD. (Pablo Kay/Twitter)

Fr Charles Dixon “Charlie” Burns, SVD, a longtime African-American priest in the Society of the Divine Word and cousin to Servant of God Thea Bowman, died in Los Angeles on June 2nd. He was 90 years old.

His passing was publicized on the Society’s website and announced publicly by Pablo Kay, editor in chief of Angelus News, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Born in Greenville, Mississippi in 1932, Burns was raised there as a Black Methodist before converting, like his cousin Thea, to Catholicism as an adolescent. He became a member of Sacred Heart Catholic Church and entered seminary in 1950 as an early African-American candidate for the priesthood in the United States.

The Society of the Divine Word had begun a Black Catholic school at the parish in 1913, later becoming a Black seminary known as Sacred Heart College in 1920. It would eventually take on the name St Augustine Seminary and relocate to Bay St. Louis, serving as the first US Catholic institution consistently willing to train Black seminarians.

Burns at his ordination in 1962, preparing to give a blessing to his parents. (The Catholic Advocate)

Burns was ordained at St Augustine’s in 1962 and served in the Society’s Southern province, including in Louisiana and his home state. He soon became a well-known figure in the Civil Rights Movement, participating in the 1966 March Against Fear with a group of sympathetic Catholic priests—including fellow Mississippian Verbite Fr Malcolm O’Leary, SVD.

During this period, Burns was also a major promoter of his cousin Thea’s public ministry in Mississippi as a teacher, activist, artist, theologian, and public speaker. Following her terminal cancer diagnosis, Burns would help crowdfund her trip to Africa for an International Eucharistic Congress.

After its genesis in the late 1960s, the Black Catholic Movement also became a major part of Burns’ ministry—although he was known as a measured critic of its more revolutionary rhetoric while serving in its Chicago epicenter.

Burns served at St Aloysius Catholic Church in Cleveland in the 1970s and was active there in regional Black Catholic activities and ministries. He lectured on Black Catholic catechesis and social concerns, and reportedly became in 1971 the first Black staff member with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, for what would become the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

He had previously served on the USCCB’s Task Force for Urban Problems, a response to the founding manifesto of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus. The NBCCC was organized in Detroit in 1968 by Fr Herman Porter, SCJ—also born in Greenville and raised at Sacred Heart Church.

While in Chicago at St Anselm Catholic Church, Burns became known for various ecumenical efforts, including a historic 1978 Palm Sunday service with an Episcopalian church that was covered in Jet Magazine. He had also been part of a Catholic delegation to a meeting of the National Council of Churches in Detroit in 1969.

Burns transferred to the Society of the Divine Word’s West Coast province in 1981, serving for a decade at St John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Hyde Park. Notably, he participated in the 1991 independent commission concerning the LAPD after the Rodney King beatings. Upon his departure from St John's, he was covered in the Los Angeles Times for his reputation as a bridge-builder between the local Black and Latino communities.

He was also quoted on the topic of difficulties faced by African Americans and other people of color preparing for the Catholic priesthood in the US.

“Too often, when minorities are in the seminary, they’re assimilated too much into Anglo culture, and ultimately don’t want to serve their own people,” Burns told the Times.

“Our order encouraged indigenous traditions. I could fuse the Holy Spirit tradition I was raised in with Catholic beliefs perfectly.”

Moving to Northern California, Burns then served at St Patrick Catholic Church in Oakland. There, a successful tenure led to his becoming the namesake of a preschool at the Prescott-Joseph Center, a community services outreach co-founded by Burns in 1995.

Following his retirement, Burns relocated to the Divine Word residence in Riverside, California in 1997. He began living at the St John of God Retirement Center in Los Angeles in 2004, and reached his 60th ordination anniversary the day before his death.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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