Fr Thomas James, SVD, a longtime educator, pastor, and administrator, died on Monday, October 28 at the age of 80. He was a resident of Calcutta House hospice in Lafayette and no cause of death was given.
The news of his passing was announced by, among others, the Diocese of Lafayette, encompassing the region where James was born, ordained, and served for most of his priestly ministry.
Born in 1942, James was raised in a Catholic family in St. Martinville, Louisiana, a historic city associated with Acadian refugees from Canada—later known in Louisiana as “Cajuns”—as well as its vibrant majority-Black community.
Called to the religious life at a young age—like his sister, Geneva, a member of the Sisters of the Holy Family—James entered the Society of the Divine Word. It was the congregation of his childhood pastors, Frs Maurice Rousseve and Anthony Bourges, two of the “First Four” Black priests ordained in the Deep South.
Like Rousseve and Bourges, James studied at St. Augustine Seminary—formed by the SVDs in 1920 in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi to educate African Americans for the priesthood in an era when US bishops refused to accept Black applicants. He later attended the former Divine Word College in Massachusetts, Loyola University Chicago, and Catholic Theological Union before being ordained in 1969.
In a reflection written in 2020, James noted that during his studies, he served alongside his fellow seminarians as peacemakers during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which occasioned a series of protests and a violent police crackdown. James and others served on a dedicated hotline to defuse tensions by dispelling rumors among the local populace.
Upon ordination the next year, James’ first assignment was as a teacher at Verbum Dei High School in Watts, Los Angeles, where he remained for nearly 20 years, later becoming principal. He returned to the Louisiana in the late 1980s, where he served as a pastor at St. Edward Catholic Church in New Iberia; Immaculate Heart of Mary in Lafayette; and St. Joseph’s in Broussard.
“One of his proudest accomplishments was erecting a Memorial to [the] “First Four”… on the grounds of Immaculate Heart,” reads an obituary for James.
“Father James delighted in being amongst the people that God had chosen him to shepherd wherever he served.”
James also served in the leadership of the Divine Word administration, elected as vice provincial in 1999 and again in 2005. He was provincial councilor from 2008 to 2011, and also served as an episcopal vicar for the Lafayette Diocese. A member of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, James also maintained a robust promotion of African-American vocations, anti-racism, and the history of the SVD missions in the Southern Province.
Shortly after celebrating 50 years of priesthood, in 2020 James retired to Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Opelousas, Louisiana, formerly known as the largest Black Catholic parish in America. He continued to assist with Masses and received a dedicated portal on the parish website for his homilies and reflections.
James was preceded in death by his parents Collins Sr. and Eva, his nephew and godson Collins James III, his great nephew James Bastiste; great-niece Skylar Batiste, and great-nephew Denzel Batiste. He is survived by his sister, Geneva James, SSF; his brother, Collins James Jr., and his godchildren Khalia Irons and Karlee Taylor.
A visitation for James will take place on Friday, November 4 at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Lafayette at 9am CT, followed by a Rosary at 10am and Mass of Christian Burial celebrated by Fr Chester Arceneaux at noon. Livestreams will be available on YouTube and Facebook.
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).