By Arlene Edmonds
Special to The CS&T
At William C. Collins Sr.’s funeral Mass at Our Lady of the Holy Souls worship site in North Philadelphia May 9, dozens of priests, many parishioners from his home parish (which is now part of Our Lady of Hope Parish) and family members were on hand to mourn the 90-year-old lay leader.
Father Stephen D. Thorne, director of the Office of Black Catholics, preached the homily and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph P. McFadden celebrated the Mass.
For Father Thorne, being a part of Collins’ funeral had personal significance. The priest grew up at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Parish. He recalled seeing Collins and his late wife, Mattie, in the same pew every single Sunday. Collins, an active member of the Serra Club, played a role in Father Thorne’s decision to become a priest.
Also, Collins played a pivotal role in the formation of the Office for Black Catholics which Father Thorne has served as director of for the past five years.
“Growing up as a boy I was always impressed with the faithfulness of Mr. Collins and his wife who were married for over 60 years,” Father Thorne said. “As a boy I just remember seeing his wife singing in the choir and him serving as lector. They were a faithful testament to a strong black marriage. Long before I entered the seminary they, and so many other strong families in my church, modeled for me what faith and service looked like.”
Father Thorne said that he felt personally honored to deliver the homily at Collins’ funeral though he was the youngest priest present. He said that all those present really played a part “in a beautiful tribute.” He added that he called Collins the “prince of the Church” because of the legacy he left in Philadelphia, around the nation and even abroad.
A native of Jacksonville, Fla., Collins and his wife were married in 1940. He migrated to Philadelphia after serving in the U.S. Navy. He and his wife were among the first African-Americans to purchase a home in the Tioga section of North Philadelphia. He spent his career as a civilian employee of the Navy at the old Philadelphia Naval Base. The couple had one son, William C. Collins Jr., a graduate of Georgetown University Law School.
The senior Collins attended Mass with his wife and participated in parish life before converting to Catholicism in 1957. When extraordinary ministers of Communion were introduced, Msgr. John O’Brien (who was pastor of Holy Souls at the time) appointed him as one of the first to serve in this capacity.
On the archdiocesan level he served as vice president of the Cardinal’s Commission on Human Relations, and Cardinal John Krol nominated him for the papal honor of Knight of St. Gregory.
In 1987 Cardinal Krol sent him to New Orleans to represent Philadelphia at a meeting between Pope John Paul II and African-American Catholics. Later, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua named him to the highest rank of Knight Commander in the Knights of St. Gregory.
The Serra Club honored him for his service to the Church at their June 17 meeting last year – his 90th birthday.
“Mr. Collins always displayed great prudence,” Father Thorne said. “He knew when to speak and when to keep silent. He was not a loud man, but when he spoke everyone would listen. He loved the Church but would speak out when it was necessary to do so. He is responsible for the Office of Black Catholics being here today because he was a leader even during the times of tension. That’s why he will be remembered as the prince of the Church.”
Arlene Edmonds is a freelance writer and St. Raymond of Penafort parishioner. She may be reached at ArleneEdmonds@aol.com.