Harold Robert Perry (1916–1991)

Harold Robert Perry was the first African American to become a bishop in the Catholic Church in the modern era. Part of his career beforehand was spent serving a church in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County).

Perry was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on October 9, 1916, the son of a mill worker and a domestic cook. He knew at a young age that he wanted to enter the ministry, and at age thirteen he entered the Society of Divine Word Seminary in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

In 1944, he was ordained into the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church, becoming the twenty-sixth African American to attain this position. Over the decade, he served in several positions, pastoring congregations in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, including St. Peter Catholic Church in Pine Bluff from 1949 to 1951.

As civil rights increasingly became a major national issue in the 1950s, Perry also gave it his attention. By 1960, he had joined the National Catholic Council for Interracial Justice. He started writing and expressing his concerns about segregation within the Catholic Church and the broader American society. In 1963, he was invited to a meeting of religious leaders with President John F. Kennedy to discuss desegregation. In 1964, the same year that he was appointed Provincial Superior of the southern province of the Divine Word Society in the United States, he also became the first black member of the clergy to deliver the opening prayer in Congress.

The following year, Perry was appointed auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of New Orleans by Pope Paul VI. In this capacity, he became the first black bishop in the Roman Catholic Church in the twenty-first century. Some white protestors gathered outside his consecration, with one woman describing it as “another reason why God will destroy the Vatican.”

Throughout his life, Perry continued to be a spiritual teacher and an ardent supporter of civil rights. He died in Marrero, Louisiana, on July 17, 1991.

For additional information:
“Bishop Harold R. Perry, 74, Dies.” New York Times, July 19, 1991. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/1991/07/19/obituaries/bishop-harold-r-perry-74-dies-first-black-prelate-in-the-century.html (accessed September 28, 2021).

Woods, James M. Mission and Memory: A History of the Catholic Church in Arkansas. Little Rock: August House Publishing Co., 1993.

Jimmy Cunningham
Nashville, Tennessee


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