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Fr Paul Williams, OFM dead at 70

An African-American Franciscan priest, best known for his ministry with Black Catholics in South Carolina and Delaware, has died unexpectedly in Maryland.

(The Dialog)

Fr Paul Williams, OFM, a prominent Black priest residing in Maryland, has died at the age of 70, according to reports.

St Camillus Catholic Church in Silver Spring sent the news out to parishioners yesterday afternoon, as the seasoned Black priest had suffered a heart attack while praying with his fellow friars at the church on Monday evening.

“We were celebrating the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus which is the name of our Franciscan province,” said Fr Brian Jordan, OFM, the parish pastor.

Williams, a priest for 35 years and a Franciscan for 44, was born in Alexandria, Virginia and baptized at St Joseph's Catholic Church there in the city, a Black parish run by the Josephites. He attended the parish school and later graduated from George Washington High and George Mason University.

After professing solemn vows with the Franciscans in 1980, he was ordained in 1986 and was assigned to St Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in New York City.

He then went on to fill a number of posts at Black parishes in the Diocese of Charleston during the early 2000s, including at St Anthony of Padua in Greenville, South Carolina—where he had earlier served as a Franciscan brother, before pursuing the priesthood—and St Martin de Porres in Columbia.

During his time in the Palmetto State, Williams was honored by Pope Benedict XVI with the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal in 2008 for his service in the diocese, where he also served as the vicar for Black Catholics.

Prior to the pandemic, Williams served as pastor of St Joseph’s on French Street in Wilmington,  Delaware, another historic Black parish that had been served by the Josephites until 1993. Williams himself arrived at the parish in 2013, twenty years after the Franciscans took over.

After serving in prison ministry, local ecumenical affairs, and again heading the diocesan Black Catholic ministry, he retired in 2015 and remained there until September 2020, when the order withdrew from Wilmington and he made his way to the friary in Maryland (just a short distance from his hometown).

Williams celebrating Mass at St Joseph Catholic Church in Alexandria, Virginia. (The Josephites/Facebook)

The move to St Camillus was also a full-circle journey in more ways than one, as Williams had initially—and unsuccessfully—requested an assignment there upon his ordination some three decades prior, according to his bio the parish website.

His death is the second unexpected loss of a priest for the parish in the last 18 months, with former pastor Fr Christopher Posch, OFM succumbing to pneumonia in July 2020.

Williams is also one of several African-Americans in consecrated life to die in the past few weeks, with Sr Mary Canice Lastrapes, SSF of New Orleans passing on December 18th and Fr Martin Carter, SA of New York City passing a week later, on Christmas.

Williams will be honored by the Diocese of Charleston’s Black Catholic ministry on Friday, January 7th in a virtual event hosted by director Kathleen Merritt and presenters Sr Roberta Fulton, SSMN and Judge Arthur C. McFarland. That event will go live at 10am ET and registration is open now.

He is scheduled to be funeralized on Thursday, January 13th at St Camillus with a Mass at 11am ET, following a viewing at 9am.

In lieu of flowers, the friars ask that donations be sent to the St Francis Emergency Fund, a local relief agency that assists the poor with rent and utility bills.

“Father Paul had great affection and empathy for those persons struggling [during] the pandemic,” said Jordan.

The Funeral Mass will be livestreamed on the parish Facebook page and YouTube channel.

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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