Venerable Augustus Tolton’s Spiritual Sons: Black Catholic Priests Ordained in 2021
Three Black Catholics newly ordained to the Catholic priesthood share their vocation journeys.
NEW ORLEANS — “Do you want to be a priest?”
The first time Ajani Gibson heard these words, he was 5 years old, staring intently into the chapel of his elementary school where the Mass was offered. The gentleman who came across Gibson that day seemed perplexed.
“He said, ‘Do you want to be a priest?’ and I said, ‘Yes!’” Father Gibson told the Register. At home, he was the little boy who celebrated Mass with stuffed animals and dressed up as the priest on Halloween.
Of course, Father Gibson said with a laugh, that “Yes” turned into a “No” or “Maybe.” And there were times he intentionally fought the idea of a vocation, even as he got more involved in altar serving, lay ministry and campus ministry in high school and college. But at priesthood, he told the Lord, he drew the line.
“All my peers saw that’s where my life was headed,” he said. Finally in college, he said, “I literally ran out of excuses.”
On June 6, Father Gibson celebrated his first Mass at his home parish, St. Peter Claver in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, and the congregation was absolutely jubilant.
After his first Mass at his parish, one of the parish ladies came up and said, “The Lord did not give up on you!”
Other family members were more direct.
“My brother said it was about time!” he said.
Father Gibson is one of a half-dozen Black Catholics this year who have followed in the path blazed by Venerable Augustus Tolton, the nation’s first publicly recognized Black Catholic priest.
Today, there are approximately 250 African American Catholic priests out of 3 million Black Catholics, a reflection both of the heroic path blazed by Venerable Tolton and also the historic cost of racism (and slowness in rooting it out) in the Catholic Church that snuffed out many Black vocations. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recounted how a white seminarian openly cheerleading the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. drove him out of seminary and temporarily out of the Catholic Church.
Josephite Brother Cursey Calais, president of the National Black Catholic Seminarian Association, told the Register that their association is aimed at both fostering and supporting Black Catholics’ pursuit of their vocations to the priesthood. Brother Calais said they hold up Venerable Augustus as an inspiration to their approximately 40 seminarian members to persevere in their vocation.
“With the way he endured during his vocation, we always have that sense of him inspiring us to always give more and keep up the good work that we do,” he said. “His faith inspires us not to give up.”
Father Ajani’s assignment is to St. Peter Claver Church. And one of the key benefits, he said, is Black Catholic youth will have another example of a priest who looks like them and can relate to their struggles and help them envision the possibility that Jesus Christ is calling them also to the priesthood.
Keys to Vocation
Father Raney Johnson remembers the first time he was asked about a vocation. A religious sister — in fact, a member of Venerable Henriette DeLille’s religious order, the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary — had started working at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament parish school in Shreveport, Louisiana, when he was in seventh grade.
“She asked me if I ever thought about being a priest,” he said. “And so that's when I first really started to think about it.”
During high school, Father Johnson said he was inspired by St. John Bosco and started discerning a vocation to the Salesians.
“Ultimately, that didn’t happen,” he said. But in college, Father Johnson said, “I started to hear the call again, and after my sophomore year, that's when I first applied to seminary.”
Father Johnson explained that adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, the Rosary and daily Mass really nourished his vocation through seminary.
Finally, he said, the experience of ministering in a parish alongside the pastor, through all the ins and outs of parish life, a month before his ordination to the diaconate solidified his discernment.
“That was the moment that really everything clicked,” he said.
Father Johnson was ordained on June 5 and is ministering at St. Mary of the Pines Catholic Church in Shreveport.
“I look forward to being in the parish to help evangelize the culture and be able to celebrate Mass and to hear confessions,” he said.
When God Has Different Plans
Father Guy Dormevil had dreamed about serving the Church as a permanent deacon. But his unusual vocation pathway to the priesthood shows how God sometimes has different plans.
“The priesthood showed me God has a will for you and to surrender to God,” he said.
When he started his vocation discernment to the diaconate, Father Dormevil was married and the father of two children. After 29 years of marriage, his wife and love of his life, Margalie, passed away from cancer in 2015. But he said that experience of marriage — a life of sacrifice and learning to be humble before another person — informs his priesthood.
“In marriage, you have to learn how to give yourself,” he said. Father Dormevil said the sacrament of matrimony is contrary to what a lot of people are doing today, where they are “not looking to give, but seeking what you can get.”
“I think all those qualities are helpful,” he said, saying the experience taught him that a priest’s relationship with his parish must “not be to lord over them, but to be one family in Christ.”
Father Dormevil also cited the experience of his own family as formative in his vocation.
“My father always wanted his first son to be a priest and his daughter to be a nun,” he said. His father was a sacristan for 40 years, and while his first son did not become a priest, Father Dormevil said he believed his father’s prayers played a role in his own vocation.
His sister never became a nun — but she helped raise all 15 of the children in the family after the death of their mother, and he calls her “the Jesus of the family.”
“That sister sacrificed her entire life for the well-being of the family,” he said. And at 17 years old, he started helping his sister raise his other siblings.
“I’ve been a father figure my entire life,” he said.
In a moving homily at Father Dormevil’s ordination on June 12, Bishop Frank Caggiano of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, referred to Father Dormevil’s experience of fatherhood and how many lives his witness had touched.
“And now the Lord will ask you to put your hand to the plow and, in this very troubled and challenging world, lead God’s people as one of his fathers, as his priest.”
Forming the Next Generation
More work needs to be done to encourage more Black Catholic men to heed the call like Venerable Augustus Tolton did to follow Jesus Christ into his sacred priesthood and to sustain them on the journey.
Father Gibson told the Register that, even today, seminary culture can have an “assimilation” mindset. More has to be done to recognize “the gifts African Americans bring” to the Catholic Church. And embracing the Black tradition within the Catholic Church, he said, would be a greater witness to the Church’s universality.
“We cannot lose our diversity because of uniformity,” the priest said, echoing points made by Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II. The sainted pontiff even spoke eloquently in his 1987 visit to New Orleans about the critical importance of Black Catholics’ gifts to the whole Catholic Church.
“The Holy Father has been calling for this,” he said, “and the Church has been calling for this from the beginning.”