From Englewood to the Vatican: Reminiscing with family of new Cardinal Wilton Gregory

On Saturday, the pandemic prevented the family of newly minted Cardinal Wilton Gregory from traveling to Rome to witness his elevation to become the first African American to serve on the highest governing body of the global Catholic church. But his sisters were there in spirit, watching online, reflecting on their brother’s journey into history.

By Maudlyne Ihejirika  Dec 1, 2020, 7:02pm CST

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Wilton Gregory with his two sisters, Claudia Ferguson (left) and Elaine Gregory Swenson at his May 21, 2019, installation as archbishop of Washington, D.C., an appointment that also came from Pope Francis. Provided

Tears started flowing Saturday even before their brother’s name was called to come up and receive the cap of a new cardinal — the tear ducts opening right about when Archbishop Antoine Kambanda of Kigali, Rwanda, was called up — just before Archbishop Wilton Gregory.

Gregory’s sisters, Elaine Gregory Swenson and Claudia Ferguson, felt the same pride for the very first cardinal appointed to that tiny African nation — whose family was slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide — as they felt toward their own brother’s historic elevation.

“My sister and I were both crying,” said Swenson, 70, who has called California home since graduating Loyola University with her nursing degree, leaving Chicago shortly after Gregory was ordained as an Archdiocese of Chicago priest in 1973, under Cardinal John Cody.

“We started crying when the Rwandan came up. That’s our motherland. He went first, then ‘Butch,’ and I just knew that my grandmother, my aunt, my mother and father and Monsignor Hayes and Father Weber — all of those loving souls who had crossed over, were there in St. Peter’s Basilica with him, saying, ‘Amen.’”

“Butch” would be Gregory, archbishop of Washington, D.C., the brilliant kid from South Side Englewood who rose through the ranks to become the first African American to serve on the College of Cardinals, the highest governing body of the global Catholic church.

How did it happen?

“All three of us were raised in a family that had a deep connection to God from a very early age. We were raised to know our potential as human beings was unlimited, as long as we took God with us on our journey. This message was reinforced and strengthened by the priests and nuns at St. Carthage Catholic School,” Swenson said. “St. Carthage was a loving nest for children and families, where our faith in God and ourselves was nurtured.”

Growing up in their large Englewood apartment complex at 217 W. 72nd St., during the 1950s and ’60s, the three siblings attended the grammar school once located at 73rd & Yale, shuttered in 1984, followed by its church, in 1989.

Gregory’s father, Wilton Gregory, a computer technician, and his mother, Ethel Duncan Gregory, a singer who also worked as a hospital attendant, divorced early on. The siblings were raised by their mother and their grandmother, Etta Mae Duncan.

Wilton Gregory, here, with his two siblings Elaine (left) and Claudia, was raised by his mother, Ethel Duncan Gregory, and his grandmother, Etta Mae Duncan, in an apartment complex in South Side Englewood during the 1950’s and ‘60s. Provided

Englewood was a completely different place back then, notes Swenson. It was before white flight, and she and her siblings were exposed to all races and creeds, in a community where everyone looked out for one another.

“Our family, and my brother in particular, was strengthened and blessed by that contact with so many loving people — African-American, Jewish, Polish, German, Irish, Asian — instilling a sense of multiculturalism being a gift. We felt safe in that community,” she said.

“Faith was celebrated. Everybody wasn’t Catholic, but most people definitely felt connection to God. So children walking home from school would be talked to by the mothers in their houses, saying things like, ‘I hope you were good in school today. You know you children need to make us proud. If you do something wrong, we’re gonna hear about it, and you’ll get fussed at by a whole bunch of people,’” she recounted.

“Even after it changed to predominantly African-American, our neighborhood was a village.”

Gregory was a loving big brother who could make you laugh, and excelled academically as a child, Swenson recalled.

“When we were tested for IQ’s, my brother ended up in the Mensa area [scores at or above the 98th percentile]. The nuns said they had never tested a child with an IQ that high,” she said. “He was a very protective older brother, and always very, very generous. He also had a really good sense of humor. He told me once, ‘Did you know you were an identical twin?’ I said, ‘Really? Where’s the other one?’ He said, ‘She died laughing.’ I punched him.”

Gregory’s grandmother passed in 1986. His father passed in 2008; his mother, in 2013.

Wilton Gregory with his mother, sisters and extended family at his May 9, 1973, ordination as an Archdiocese of Chicago priest. Provided

It was the influence of his grandmother, who came up from Mississippi in the Great Migration and was baptized Catholic as a child, that brought the family into the Catholic faith.

“Etta Mae knew the value of a Catholic education, and she was the one that marched down Yale Avenue and made a deal with the priests that she would clean their house and do their laundry if they would just educate her babies,” Swenson recounted.

“‘Butch’ started saying he wanted to be a priest when he was 10 years old. That was before he was Catholic,” she said of Gregory, 72. “We had gone to a Baptist church periodically, but there was no real connection there. I would call my parents non-religious people. My father might have been agnostic, he was baptized on his deathbed by my brother.”

“My brother was baptized in 1958, at age 11. My mother and my sister and I were baptized a year later. The priests at St. Carthage, Monsignor John Hayes and Father Gerard Weber, were very special people. Through the Civil Rights period, we all knew that God was walking with us, and the priests alongside,” she continued.

“As white men walking in support of African Americans, they were spit upon, and yet they walked. We all knew how much they loved us, the nuns as well. They believed in us, and wanted only the best for us. The priests and nuns of St. Carthage were truly holy people. That’s why Wilton became a priest.”

Wilton Gregory Farewell Mass, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, Glenview, 1976. Provided

Hayes and Weber would remain constants in Gregory’s life, as he first attended Quigley Preparatory Seminary South, then Niles College of Loyola University and St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, before earning his doctorate in sacred liturgy from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute (Sant’ Anselmo) in Rome in 1980, returning to begin his climb through the ranks.

Gregory first served as associate pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glenview, then on the faculty of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, before serving as a master of ceremonies to both Cody and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, to whom he would become a protege. Bernardin appointed him auxiliary bishop on Oct. 31, 1983.

He would be appointed bishop of Belleville by Pope John Paul II on Dec. 29, 1993, receiving a second Pope John Paul II appointment on Dec. 9, 2004, as archbishop of Atlanta. Pope Francis named him archbishop of Washington, D.C. on April 4, 2019 — aligned with his elevation of clergy who are viewed in sync with his progressive vision of the church.

“When he became a priest, Monsignor Hayes and Father Weber were there,” Swenson said.

“My brother was ordained with a family member of then-Mayor Richard J. Daley, and our alderman, the late William Shannon, went up to Daley and said, ‘Your honor ... meet the newest Black clergy in Chicago.’ Wilton blessed the mayor and his wife, Eleanor ‘Sis’ Daley,” she recounted. “We had a picture, but I can’t find it now.”

“When he was installed as auxiliary bishop by Cardinal Bernardin, each bishop had to have attendants with them as they were elevated, and my brother’s two assistants were Hayes and Weber,” Swenson added. “It was a very moving moment. These two men who were responsible for him becoming a priest were able to see him elevated, and the staff that bishops carry was given to him by Hayes, one beautifully made of ebony from Africa.”

“The last time we saw Monsignor Hayes was when ‘Butch’ became bishop of Belleville. I thanked him for coming, and he said, ‘Elaine, if I’m still alive, I’ll see you again when he is made archbishop.’ He died two years before ‘Butch’ was named archbishop. But he knew.”

Hayes died in 2002, at age 96. Weber, who retired to a retreat home in Encino, California, where Swenson and her husband regularly visited him, remained part of the family until he, too, passed, in 2009, at age 91.

Gregory, who has served in many leading roles in the church, was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2001, a tenure that saw the crisis of sex abuse by Catholic clergy addressed with a historic “zero-tolerance” abuse policy in 2002.

Cardinal Wilton Gregory with his mother, Ethel Duncan Gregory, who passed away in 2013. The Archbishop of Washington, D.C. was elevated with 12 other cardinals Saturday in Rome, becoming the first African American ever to serve on the highest governing body of the global Catholic church. Provided

In 2006 he was inducted into Morehouse College’s Martin Luther King Board of Preachers, honored that same year with the Cardinal Bernardin Award from the Catholic Common Ground Initiative.

“When he was installed as archbishop in D.C. last year, my sister and I started getting our outfits together for Rome. We just knew he would be cardinal. We said, ‘Please Lord, let it be. Please give him his cap,’” said Swenson, who has attended every ordination ceremony. Her sister has missed only one.

“It’s sad we couldn’t be there with him at the Vatican because of the pandemic, but we were there in soul, and in thought and prayer, and he knew we were watching,” she said.

“He always calls us on Sunday, and the three of us talk. We tease him, tell him jokes and make him laugh. He was just so happy Sunday, preparing to concelebrate mass with Pope Francis, before returning Tuesday. My sister and I kept screaming, ‘We’re so happy for you! We’re so proud of you!’ He just said, ‘Thank you.’ I think he was just overwhelmed with joy.”

And does he exude any sense of pride over breaking this Black history barrier?

“My brother doesn’t have a big ego. I think he’s always seen God moving through him. He seems very humble, and I guess that comes from his exposure to Monsignor Hayes and Father Weber. They were very humble men, and incredible mentors,” Swenson said.

“He’s had other mentors too, including Cardinal Bernardin. He dearly loves the church and wants the church to grow to be supportive of all people. If he could replicate the experience of St. Carthage, I think that would be his greatest joy,” his sister said.

“I would say to kids in Englewood today: ‘Take God with you. All is possible. Take the Lord on your journey and watch where you could end up.’