Deacon Emile Adams Jr., an African American reported to be the oldest Catholic deacon in the United States, has died at the age of 100 in Los Angeles. He had recently celebrated his 43rd ordination anniversary.
The news of his passing on November 5 was first shared by the Black Catholic ministry for the Diocese of Toledo, which posted the news on Facebook.
“Please pray for the repose of his soul and the comfort of his family and friends who mourn his loss,” the ministry wrote.
Born in New Orleans in 1922, Adams was raised Catholic and served as an altar boy. He remained active in the Church throughout his life, having been a member of the Holy Name Society and the Knights of Peter Claver since his early youth. He was the oldest living member of the Knights at the time of his death, and received the order’s prestigious Cartagena Award for Fourth Degree members at their national convention this year in Illinois.
“His dedication to the Holy Roman Catholic Church and our Noble Order is unparalleled,” the order said in a commendation for Adams issued following the convention in July.
Adams was also a member of the Navy, having enlisted during high school and later serving in World War II. During the war, he and his wife Anona (whom he married in 1943) moved to California, where he worked multiple jobs to provide for their five children. He later entered a long career working for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, retiring in 1986.
Called to the permanent diaconate in his late 50s, Adams was ordained in 1979 and served at St. Bernadette Catholic Church, located in the section of the Baldwin Hills neighborhood often referred to as the “Black Beverly Hills.” He and his wife had joined the parish seven years earlier.
Among his other ministerial posts, Adams and his wife co-founded the parish’s bereavement ministry, which he ran with his daughter Lillian Rouzan following his wife’s death in 2001. Adams was also a member of the archdiocese’s marriage tribunal and provided funeral services at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City.
As he became the elder statesman of Catholic clergy in Los Angeles and beyond, Adams also became a repeated feature in local media, with stories highlighting his continued service as a nonagenarian Black Catholic deacon.
He was honored at least twice by the mayor of Los Angeles, in 2003 for his work with the archdiocesan Black Catholic ministry (the African American Catholic Center for Evangelization) and in 2017 for being the oldest active Catholic deacon on the West Coast.
Adams’ work with families who had lost loved ones became of particular import during the most severe periods of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which he noted as particularly difficult for his parishioners, friends, and even his daughter.
“It changed things, not being able to have a [funeral] service and people having to go directly to the cemetery,” Adams told Angelus.
Adams continued to lead prayer services for parishioners over Zoom following widespread pandemic shutdowns, following his longtime motto recorded in the Los Angeles Sentinel in 2017: “When someone asks me to do something, then there must be a need.”
Adams’s death last month brought an outpouring of tributes from around the country, including the Knights of Peter Claver national office located in his hometown. The order posted a tribute to the 81-year member during their annual founders’ celebration and National Vocation Awareness Week—both of which commenced the day after his passing.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be held for Adams on Saturday, December 10 at St Bernadette’s, and services will begin at 10am PT. Interment will follow at Holy Cross Cemetery and a repast will be held in the St Bernadette parish hall.
Condolences may be sent to Lillian Rouzan at 4821 Keniston Avenue in Los Angeles, but the family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Deacon Emile and Anona Adams Christian Service Kitchen at St. Bernadette’s. Checks can be made out to the church with the memo line: “Christian Service, Emile Adams Jr.”
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).