Fr Wilbur Thomas, the first Black priest in the Diocese of Charlotte, passed away on December 6 in North Carolina. He was 75 years old and had been suffering from cancer for a number of years.
The news was first announced by the Catholic News Herald the day after his passing, alongside an official obituary.
Born in 1947 to Marion Gunn and civil rights activist Wiley I. Lash—the first Black mayor of Salisbury, North Carolina—Thomas was adopted as an infant and raised in Lexington, Kentucky as a Protestant in his earliest years. After his adoptive father suffered a stroke, however, a local Catholic priest ministered to the elder Thomas and soon the family was converted.
“I thought I wanted to be a Methodist minister,” Fr Thomas said in a 2018 interview with the News Herald.
“After I became Catholic, I started serving at Mass almost immediately.”
Confirmed in 1960 by the desegregationist Bishop Vincent S. Waters of Raleigh, Thomas enrolled in a Catholic high school in Kentucky and was active in the community. He served as president of the local youth chapter of the NAACP, and was reportedly arrested as a child during an attempt to organize desegregation efforts at a local theater with the help of several fellow Catholics.
Shortly after turning 18, Thomas entered priesthood formation for the Diocese of Raleigh and matriculated to the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio. He was ordained in 1973 by Waters as the third Black priest for the Diocese of Raleigh, but quickly transferred to the recently created Diocese of Charlotte to be closer to his family.
As one of the founding priests of the new jurisdiction, his ministry included several firsts, including serving as the inaugural Catholic campus minister in the diocese while serving at Wake Forest University. He also created the diocesan youth ministry program and youth council, and founded the diocese’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration and Black Catholic office.
The nascent Catholic Charismatic Renewal also received support from Thomas during his early ministry, during which he served at the Cathedral of St. Patrick before requesting an assignment within his own ethnic community.
Beginning in 1979, Thomas served as the first-ever Black pastor of Our Lady of Consolation Catholic Church, the diocese’s historically African-American parish. He is credited with co-founding its Perpetual Hope Gospel Choir, which remains active today.
Thomas headed several other parishes during his 45 years of active ministry, including the Basilica of St. Lawrence in Asheville, from which he retired in 2018 after an 18-year pastorate. He also served for a number of years as the diocesan vicar for priests and as head of the Asheville vicariate.
Among his Black Catholic confreres, including in the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, Thomas was revered as a trailblazer and fervent leader, at one point receiving the organization’s Fr. Joseph Davis Lifetime Achievement Award. He was also a member of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests, serving as the NBCCC liaison.
Thomas was diagnosed with cancer roughly two years ago, and recently experienced a deterioration in his condition, being hospitalized on December 1 and entering hospice care on December 6. He died the same day, surrounded by his family and friends.
“He was a wonderful and dedicated servant of God to the Church,” said Fr Bruce Wilkinson, a retired Black priest in Atlanta, on Twitter following Thomas’ passing.
A vigil and Rosary for Thomas will take place at the Basilica of St. Lawrence in Asheville on Tuesday, December 13 at 4pm ET. A Funeral Mass will be celebrated by Bishop Peter Jugis of Charlotte on Wednesday at 10am, also at the basilica. Liturgies at the church are livestreamed on YouTube, and a reception will follow the funeral in the basilica’s Laurentine Hall.
In lieu of flowers, it is asked that donations be made to the Father Wilbur Thomas Endowment Fund of the Diocese of Charlotte.
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).