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Fr Paschal Salisbury, first African-American Dominican priest, dead at 95

The barrier-breaking Black Catholic was the grandson of a formerly enslaved man and was turned away from other orders due to his race.

Fr Paschal Salisbury, the Dominican Order's first African-American priest. He died on Friday in Portland. (The Catholic Missourian)

SAN FRANCISCO — Fr Paschal Salisbury, the first African-American priest of the Dominican Order, has died in Portland, Oregon, after more than five decades of ministry in various cities around the country. He was 95 years old.

His passing was announced on August 19, the day after his death, by the Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus and the Shrine of St. Jude in San Francisco.

“Fr. Paschal was a priest for 56 years and impacted countless lives during his many years of ministry,” the province said in a statement posted to its website.

Born Donald Hughes Salisbury in 1928, the veteran priest was a native of Lawrence, Kansas, raised during Jim Crow as the grandson of a formerly enslaved Missourian. He enlisted in the military and there became a devotee of the radio ministry of Auxiliary Bishop Fulton Sheen of New York. At the time, Salisbury was still a Protestant.

“I sent away for a rosary and when I got it, I didn’t know how to pray it,” he told The Catholic Missourian in 2015.

Salisbury later joined the Air Force, and entered the Catholic Church in 1948. Following his military service, Salisbury began to discern a call to religious life but, like many African Americans in his day, was turned away from most (or steered toward religious brotherhood) due to his race. He later moved west to San Francisco and joined St. Dominic’s Church, a Dominican parish.

Following his graduation from the University of San Francisco, Salisbury found success with his application to the Western Province of the Dominicans. In 1967, he was ordained as the order’s first Black member in the U.S. He returned to St. Dominic’s as a priest and also served as a chaplain and campus minister in Washington, D.C., Arizona, Minnesota, Missouri, California, and various cities in Oregon. 

Salisbury retired in 2008, spending his later years at the Dominican priory in Portland, hearing confessions and tending to the community garden. He celebrated his golden jubilee as a priest in 2017. 

“He was a devoted and pious prayer warrior, faithful to the Rosary and his daily office,” reads a statement from the Rosary Center in Portland, where he resided during his final years.

“He was well known around the Rosary Center for saying Masses for us until he could no longer climb the stairs easily, and for hearing confessions until recently, when he had a fall and became confined to a wheelchair and his bed.”

From left: Dominican Frs Paschal Salisbury, Timothy Conlan, Paul Connor, and David Geib upon their golden jubilee in 2017. (Dominican Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus/Facebook)

While bedridden, Salisbury fell seriously ill earlier this month and was admitted to the hospital on August 9. He then entered hospice care for the final weeks of his life.

A gifted musician throughout his life, Salisbury was honored on Tuesday during an organ and trumpet recital at St. Dominic’s in San Francisco following his death.

“Before the recital, they spoke of his love for music. It featured Bach, Mozart, Henry Purcell, and others, spanning the Baroque to Classical eras,” said Stephen Staten, an African-American parishioner at St. Dominic’s who had long been fascinated with Salisbury’s life story.

“This genre in particular I hold with love, and found joy in it to honor Fr Paschal’s memory.”

A prayer vigil for the repost of Salisbury will be held in Portland at Holy Rosary Catholic Church on Friday, August 25, at 7pm PT, followed by a reception. A memorial Mass will take place the next day at 10am. Salisbury’s funeral Mass will take place on Wednesday at St. Dominic’s in San Francisco, also at 10am, with a vigil and reception the day before at 7:30pm. Burial is scheduled for Wednesday at 2pm at St. Dominic Cemetery in Benicia, California.

Following tradition, the Dominican Order has established a memorial fund in Salisbury’s memory, to which interested parties can donate to support the education of men in formation for the Western Province.

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

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