NEWARK, N.J. — Hundreds gathered in eastern New Jersey on Saturday morning for the ordination Mass of Fr Patrick Winbush, who was ordained for the Benedictines of Newark Abbey, where he has resided as a professed monk since 2001.
The event, held at St. Mary’s Catholic Church nextdoor to the monastery, brought a diverse crowd of priests to the heart of the city, including a number of Winbush’s friends and the cardinal-archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory, who was requested by Winbush last year to perform the ordination. Both men are African Americans, Gregory being the first such cardinal in history, and Winbush the first such priest ordained in Newark in more than two decades.
“It’s so great, really, to have an African-American cardinal,” Winbush said during the livestreamed liturgy, eliciting a hearty applause from the assembled crowd, which was ready to acknowledge the historic intersection.
Now the second most recent African American ordained on Newark soil, Fr Larry Evans of the Archdiocese of Newark served as vestor, donning Winbush with the sacred chasuble of the priesthood following the laying on of hands by Gregory and the assembled priests.
“I’ve known Fr Larry since I was 14 years old,” Winbush said, nearly brought to tears as he described Evans’ ministry as his spiritual director and former schoolteacher. It was in his formative educational years that Winbush first met the monks of Newark Abbey, before entering the monastery after a year of college.
Benedictines from around the country, some of whom studied with Winbush in seminary, were present for the ordination. Represented were Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania—the founding abbey of Newark’s and the oldest Benedictine house in America—and Saint Leo Abbey in Florida, another product of Saint Vincent, among others.
Also present were a number of religious brothers and sisters from various other orders, a testament to Winbush’s service as a religious brother before hearing a call to the priesthood.
“For the last 24 years, I had been a religious brother. It’s a wonderful vocation,” Winbush said, noting that he would continue to support religious brothers in their unique ministry.
“I will always be one with you. And I will always promote vocations to religious brotherhood.”
A native of Newark, Winbush was also supported at the ordination by his home parish, Blessed Sacrament-St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, located just a few miles from the downtown abbey. The choir from the parish brought gospel stylings to enhance the liturgical celebration, singing tunes handpicked by Winbush himself, accompanied by jazzy horned instrument arrangements.
Gospel choir from Winbush's childhood church sang Hezekiah Walker's "Every Praise" for the offertory. Walker is a Protestant minister in nearby Brooklyn.— Nate Tinner-Williams (@natemup) May 20, 2023
(You'll notice twin nuns in blue in the front row, who also hail from Winbush's home parish.)
As Winbush lay prostrate on the church floor before the highest-ranking Black bishop in U.S. history, the litany of saints filled the air of the stately abbey church with the names of Black saints and saints-to-be, including the likes of Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Servant of God Thea Bowman, and Venerable Augustus Tolton—the first openly African American priest in history.
Tolton, of course, faced a life of challenges, ranging from slavery as a child to derision as a priest to glory as a venerated emblem of Black Catholic spirituality and ordained ministry. Fittingly, his visage graced the pages of the Mass program for Winbush’s own sacred moment.
“You and I know [Patrick] has still much to learn about the grace of religious life and challenges and joys of the priestly office,” Gregory noted during his homily, encouraging Winbush’s community to support him, before speaking directly to the ordinand himself.
“Patrick, you have lived the consecrated life for some time. You have discovered within your Benedictine heritage how to pray, and especially to pray as an African-American man. You have blended those two spiritual components into a life of service and Gospel charity.”
The specifics of Winbush’s future ministry are yet to be revealed. He remains sub-prior of Newark Abbey, and could be assigned to a parish in the coming weeks or months. This is often the case with priest-monks, who otherwise celebrate sacraments in their own religious houses for their brothers.
In that sense, Winbush is now a brother for others in a new way, one to which few African Americans attain. He is estimated to be one of only 250 such priests in the world.
“My dream growing up was to become a priest or religious, and that dream came true,’ Winbush wrote in a column last month for Jersey Catholic, Newark’s archdiocesan newspaper.
“I am blessed that I am able to follow in the footsteps of these holy men and women who educated and mentored me.”
Indeed, as Winbush celebrates his First Mass on Sunday morning in his childhood parish, he will trace priestly footsteps walked before elsewhere but never in his own spiritual home. Twice before, Blessed Sacrament has produced African American nuns and, before this weekend, two lay religious brothers—but never a priest.
There, Winbush is the first, and hopefully the first of many.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.