Deacon Thomas A. Shields, 85, a retired permanent deacon who was a member of the first class of African American deacons ordained for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, died Jan. 10. He was married for 33 years to the late Barbara Jean (Smith) Shields.
Born in New Bern, North Carolina, the son of the late Anthony and Ada Shields, he was a Korean War veteran, serving in the U.S. Army. He attended Temple University and graduated from the Pennsylvania Institute of Criminology.
In 1953 he began a career as a corrections officer with the Philadelphia Prison System. He rose through the ranks until he was appointed warden of the Philadelphia House of Correction in 1992. He held the position until 2001 when he was appointed to lead the prison system’s Faith Based Initiatives Program, a post he held for the next two years.
A member of the former St. Elizabeth Parish, Philadelphia, he entered the diaconate program and was ordained at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul by Cardinal John Krol on Nov. 7, 1982. Upon ordination he was assigned to St. Elizabeth Parish until it closed in 1993, at which time he was assigned to St. Martin de Porres until his 2010 retirement from ministry.
“He was a man of humble service,” said Father Stephen Thorne, pastor of St. Martin, who was the homilist at Deacon Shields’ Jan. 23 funeral at St. Martin. “He wore many uniforms, but the most important one was his uniform at baptism.”
Father Rayford Emmons, who was the last pastor of St. Elizabeth, was a seminarian in the Thursday Apostolate program of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary at the Philadelphia prisons when he first met Deacon Shields, who was then a guard. He made an impressed on the young seminarian.
At St. Elizabeth, Father Emmons said, Deacon Shields performed most of his ministry on weekends because of his heavy work schedule. He visited the sick, led several parish organizations and was involved in many others from seniors to youths.
“He helped with fundraising, he helped with our reunions,” Father Emmons said. And because of the deacon’s long residence in the neighborhood, “he was a liaison for us with the community,” Father Emmons added. “We could always depend on him for anything.”
The principal celebrant of Deacon Shields’ funeral Mass was Bishop Timothy C. Senior. Concelebrants included Father Emmons, Msgrs. Federico Britto, Kevin Lawrence, Wilfred Pashley, Hugh Shields and Father Edward Hallinan.
Deacon chaplains were Permanent Deacons William Bradley and Edward Purnell.
A further testament to Deacon Shields’ high standing in the community was the large number of people who attended his funeral, including a large contingent of former associates at the prisons.
Deacon Shields is survived by his children Thomas A. Jr., Patricia, Cecelia and Rosalyn; also grandchildren and great-grandchildren.