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Fr Rayford Emmons, first Black Catholic priest in Philadelphia, celebrating 50 years of ministry

The veteran minister and Catholic convert will be feted with a Jubilee Mass and celebration this month at Holy Cross Church in Mt. Airy.

Fr Rayford Emmons, parochial vicar of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Mt. Airy, Philadelphia. (Courtesy: Veronica Alvarado)

Fr Rayford Emmons, the parochial vicar of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Mt. Airy, Philadelphia, is celebrating 50 years as the first Black Catholic priest ordained for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Emmons was born in West Philadelphia on June 25, 1948. He was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, a historic Black Protestant denomination. Both of Emmons’ parents were active in the church and were models of faith and service for him. 

Junior high was transformative for Emmons. The principal of his junior high school was fantastic at giving students the most opportunities possible. She helped them see the beauty in the diversity of their classmates: Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Black, White, Latino, and Asian. All felt confident and affirmed. In the main entrance of the school, there was a large and visible saying for all to see: 

“I thought I heard the voice of God and climbed the highest steeple. But said the voice, ‘Go down again. I dwell among the people.’” 

The quote resonated deeply with young Rayford. And so, his journey began. 

When he was fifteen, he was baptized Catholic; it was Christmas Eve 1963. Focused on education and eager to grow his spiritual life, he convinced his parents to let him attend a Catholic school, among the few schools that were fully integrated at the time. That move led to a thriving year for Rayford, and his self-development and self-improvement soared. 

Knowing he wanted to be in public service, Rayford thought he would become a foreign missionary. However, there were no Black priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia at the time, so it made sense for his mission to take place at home instead. 

Against the odds, he completed his studies at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood. Recalling his time at seminary, Emmons remarked, “I really loved my classmates and I’m so proud of them as priests. They are all dedicated and hardworking and good at their priestly work.”

He remembers being at a class retreat as a seminarian where they were asked about their expectations as priests. The responses included, “We will not be easily accepted; we must practice what we preach.” After a year or two, when the group was brought together on retreat again, they all were shocked at how accepted they were, and that people wanted them to be successful. 

Emmons’ wish now is that more men of color aspire to the Catholic priesthood. As a Black priest, Emmons did not know what to expect, but the support was inspiring. 

“When the odds were against me, the people were so supportive,” he said. “Being a priest has made me have to grow spiritually and to see the truth of the gospel.” 

Fr Rayford Emmons during a Black History Month event at St. Mary Interparochial School in Philadelphia on Feb. 17, 2022. (SMIS/Facebook)

Reflecting on his favorite part about being a priest, Emmons shared that it is the diversity of the people and the diversity of the situations he has worked in. He likes being able to work with all kinds of people from all walks of life. It is never boring. He has served in 14 parishes throughout the region: urban and suburban, struggling and thriving, diverse and non-diverse. He spent over 20 years in hospital, nursing home, and prison ministry. He has served with a joyful heart in every situation regardless of how enriching or challenging it was. 

A story that was shared recently came from a parishioner at St. Andrew’s in Drexel Hill. One evening, the parishioner called in distraught because their beloved family dog had to be put down after many years of illness. The family wanted the dog blessed before he was put to sleep. Without hesitation, Emmons showed up and gently blessed the dog and put the family at ease. Thirty years later, that parishioner still remembers the kindness and compassion of that night. 

That is one of many “Fr Emmons stories.” There are countless more. If you asked him about that time, he would humbly say, “I was just doing my job.” 

Despite his enthusiasm, Emmons worries about the politics of the church. The Catholic Church in many ways sells itself short on the powerful positive impact it has had in people’s lives, both Catholic and non-Catholic. He is also concerned about the closing of parishes and schools and the inability to produce better solutions to keep them open. 

“We need more openness about things that work and commit to trying them out before giving up,” he said.

A persistent learner, Emmons was never in a school he didn’t like. (“I truly love learning!” he notes.) He encourages everyone to never stop learning and to always try to do what is right. 

Moving forward, Emmons expressed that he would like to spend time authenticating his experience as a Black priest. Since he is associated with African-American and multiple-cultural Catholic organizations; he would love to accumulate information over the last 50 years or beyond from all over the world and write a book or an almanac on Black Catholic experience worldwide, and perhaps form a resource library on the topic. 

There are many memorable milestones that have taken place in Philadelphia since 1743. The ordination, life and ministry of Emmons is one of them. We are proud of him and inspired by his life. On behalf of all those he has served, across many parishes and organizations, in all sorts of situations, we thank him.

We thank him for showing up and for giving of himself every day. We thank him for inspiring us with his homilies that he plans so diligently. We thank him for loving Jesus so deeply and so generously sharing that love with all of us and all those he encounters. May God bless him and keep him for many more years to come. 

There will be a Jubilee Mass and celebration honoring his 50 years of ministry on June 23, 2024, at Holy Cross Church at 11am ET. All are welcome to come celebrate this humble giant among us. Those interested can RSVP by emailing or texting (267) 825-2580.

Veronica Alvarado is an active parishioner at Holy Cross Parish in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia. Her role as marketing and development director allows her to feed her passion to evangelize, connect people, and create opportunities for encounter with Christ for those in her community and beyond.

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