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Greg Lambert to become first African-American Catholic priest in Iowa

The 29-year-old Florida native is set to make history for the Archdiocese of Dubuque in May, when he is ordained by Archbishop Thomas Zinkula.

Bishop Emeritus Richard Pates of Dubuque, left, and Deacon Greg Lambert at the latter's transitional diaconate ordination in May 2023. (EIN News Wire/Catholic Notebook)

The date has been set for the priestly ordination of Dcn Gregory Lambert—believed to soon become the first African American ordained as a Catholic priest in Iowa.

The 29-year-old Florida native serves in the Archdiocese of Dubuque and will receive holy orders on Saturday, May 25, in a Mass at the Cathedral of St. Raphael celebrated by Archbishop Thomas Zinkula at 10am CT. 

Lambert's will be the first ordination celebrated by Zinkula in Dubuque, with the archbishop having been appointed shortly after Lambert became a transitional deacon. Lambert has served at the cathedral for his diaconate year, assisting at Mass (including the installation of Zinkula), preaching homilies, and teaching Confirmation classes.

Lambert, who took an unconventional path to his vocation, was baptized a Catholic as an older child in a Hispanic family. They formerly practiced Buddhism, wherein Lambert “first learned to pray,” according to an interview with the archdiocese last year.

As a Catholic adolescent, he was inspired in his faith through a local youth group and entered seminary for the Diocese of Orlando right out of high school.

After seven years of schooling—and multiple visits to Iowa to see his brother in the sparsely populated, mostly White state—Lambert took a year off from seminary. He moved to Iowa in 2020 before re-entering formation for the priesthood, this time in Dubuque.

“Switching dioceses was challenging. [Lambert] faced skepticism and roadblocks, echoing the struggles of historical figures like Ven. Augustus Tolton and Fr Norman DuKette,” reads a January press release from Catholic Notebook announcing his ordination.

Tolton was the first openly Black priest in the U.S. Catholic Church, ordained overseas in 1886 due to racism among American bishops. He is now on the path to sainthood. DuKette, the twelfth African-American Catholic priest, studied at Loras College in Dubuque before his ordination in 1926 as the first Black priest in what was then the Diocese of Detroit. (He was soon exiled to Flint, Michigan, after being racially profiled and shot by the police.)

In the vein of these and other history-making African-American priests, Lambert hopes to be “a beacon of hope and inspiration” for young Black men seeking to follow their calling.

“I'm just happy to be a part of this great history,” he told BCM in 2023, referring to the legacy of DuKette and the significance of likely being the first Black Catholic ordained in Iowa.

“I'm going to be the first African-American priest ordained in [the archdiocese’s] 186-year existence. It's wild to me.”

Editor's note (2/23/24): A previous version of this story stated that Lambert will be the first African-American priest in Iowa history. It has since been noted that a Fr Lawrence Smith was reportedly ordained in the Diocese of Davenport in 1997. We have retained our original headline.

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

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