By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
Msgr. Albert V. Norrell, 86, pastor emeritus of the former St. Carthage Parish, Philadelphia, died March 25.
Msgr. Norrell was among Philadelphia’s first class of African-American permanent deacons ordained in 1982, and he was Philadelphia’s first African-American priest to rise to the rank of monsignor. He had the distinct honor of being Philadelphia’s only priest ordained by the late Pope John Paul II.
Born Protestant in Richmond Va., the son of the late Moses and Adelaide (Philips) Norrell, he first encountered Catholicism at age 14 while passing the open door of a Catholic church where a novena to St. Anthony of Padua was in progress. Intrigued, he entered and returned the following week for the liturgy. With his parents consent, he studied to become Catholic.
After service under General George Patton in World War II he pursued further education in Virginia and at Temple University, then began a career in the Philadelphia public schools, rising to the position of elementary school principal.
As a layman and member of St. Carthage Parish, he was also involved in archdiocesan affairs through the board of the Cardinal’s Commission on Human Relations and the International Eucharistic Congress of 1976.
His great devotion to the Blessed Virgin was exemplified through his long association and leadership of the Legion of Mary in Philadelphia as president and spiritual director. His personal friendship with legion founder Frank Duff led to his first meeting with Pope John Paul II in 1979. Through Duff, an Irishman, he received an audience with the Pope at Castel Gandolfo. “Are you Irish?” asked the Pope, knowing the Duff connection.
“No. I’m African-American,” the surprised Norrell replied.
In a 2005 interview with The Catholic Standard & Times, he said of John Paul II, “He lets you know when he holds your hand you are the center of his attention, he genuinely cares for you. I never met anyone in my life who impressed me as much as the Holy Father.”
The same year he met the Holy Father he entered the permanent diaconate program and was ordained by Cardinal John Krol in 1982.
In 1984, after his retirement from the Philadelphia school system, he began studies for the priesthood at the Pontifical Beda, a seminary in Rome for late vocations and was among a group of men ordained by the Pope on May 29, 1988.
After an initial assignment as parochial vicar at St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish, Philadelphia, in 1989 he was named pastor of his home parish, St. Carthage. He was named monsignor in 1991. After his 1998 retirement he lived at Villa St. Joseph, Darby.
“He was a wonderful, wise man,” said Father Stephen Thorne, who spent his deacon year at St. Carthage under Msgr. Norwell’s tutelage. “He was a great priest, a great leader and a great homilist who never used notes. He was a priest long before he was ordained. He enjoyed his retirement and found community at Villa St. Joseph.”
Geraldine Fuller, a long-time member of St. Carthage and its successor parish, St. Cyprian, remembers when Msgr. Norrell was a lector and usher. It was he who introduced her to the Legion of Mary, of which she is now president of the Mater Dolorosa Curia. “His love of the Blessed Mother made you want to be part of it,” she said. “He was the kindest person I ever knew, always freehanded. He was everything I thought a priest should be.”
Cardinal Rigali celebrated Msgr. Norrell’s funeral Mass at St. Cyprian Church on March 30. Concelebrants included Msgrs. Federico A. Britto, John T. Conway, Thomas A. Murray, Bartholomew J. O’Brien, and Father Thorne, who was the homilist.
In his 2005 interview, Msgr. Norrell gave what could be his own valediction -“When you are as old as I am and you see yourself on the way, you can start rejoicing that you are going to the Lord. That’s what you strove for, worked for. You’ll be there forever.”
Msgr. Norrell is survived by his sister-in-law, Marian Norrell, nieces, nephews and cousins.
Interment was at Holy Cross Cemetery, Yeadon.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.