For 60 years, Monsignor Wilfred J. Pashley has dedicated his priesthood to serving Philadelphia’s Black Catholic community. The longtime pastor of St. Barbara Parish in Wynnefield, and the oldest active priest in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, retired at age 86 on June 19.
“He’s so welcoming, so genuine,” says Kim Walker, Director of the archdiocesan Office of Black Catholics. “He has a dedication and love for the Black community.”
“He’s dedicated his entire priesthood to the African-American apostolate for all these years,” said Father Stephen D. Thorne, newly appointed pastor at St. Barbara’s parish and chairperson of the Archbishop’s Commission on Racial Healing.
Thorne first encountered Monsignor Pashley when Thorne was two years old in the 1970s. Pashley was assigned to Thorne’s home parish, Our Lady of the Holy Souls (1909-1993) in Philadelphia.
“He’s been an example of someone who goes where he’s sent, goes there joyfully, and stays there,” says Thorne.
“I was very happy where I was, and where I’ve been,” says Pashley, reflecting on the many Philadelphia parishes where’s he’s been assigned.
Pashley has lived in Philadelphia his whole life. An only child, he was born in Kensington. At age three, and his parents moved to Fox Chase in Northeast Philadelphia.
He attended St. Joseph’s Prep on Girard Avenue for high school, and upon his graduation in 1955, Pashley entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood. He was ordained a priest in 1963 and celebrates 60 years of being a priest this year.
Pashley’s father died when he was a 21-year-old seminarian. His mother, Kathryn Graham Pashley, served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for six terms from 1955 through 1962. She was one of only 10 women among the 210 representatives.
Pashley describes his mother as a “liberal Democrat” who was “always talking issues,” and he says, “that was always a part of my background.”
Pashley was a young priest in the mid-1960s when John Cardinal Krol founded the Commission on Human Relations after a racial incident in Folcroft section of Delaware County.
“It was very nasty, and Folcroft was a very Catholic neighborhood at that time,” said Pashley. “So, it was Catholics harassing terribly this African-American family that moved in. That was his motivation for starting the Cardinal’s Commission for Human Relations.”
Early on, Pashley was asked to be an Associate Director for the commission, representing the northern region of Philadelphia. He later became the commission’s executive director in the 1980s.
While working on the commission, Pashley admits some things he did were unpopular with others. He endorsed the Black Power Movement of the 1960s, and he was one of a group of 10 priests who purchased an advertisement in the Philadelphia Bulletin addressing a fight that broke out in the cafeteria at Roman Catholic High School and spilled out into the streets of Philadelphia.
“It wasn’t cheap,” he says of purchasing the newspaper advertisement. “It was a month’s salary we all put into it. It really upset a lot of people.”
After his time with the commission, Pashley settled back into parish life as a pastor, first at St. Rose of Lima parish in Overbrook, and later, he additionally became pastor at St. Barbara. He worked to successfully merge both parishes together in 2013.
Reflecting on Pashley’s relationship with parishioners, Thorne says, “He’s their servant, their father, their spiritual leader. He gives example of what the priesthood is.”
“He’s left me with an indelible sense of spirituality,” says Regina Robinson-Rush, a parishioner at St. Barbara for 34 years and a greeter at Masses. “He’s been such a great pastor from the time I met him. He’s my pastor, but he’s also my friend.”
“He’s always pastored in Black parishes. He has great insight and understanding,” says Marguerite Pinckney, a parishioner for almost 40 years first at St. Rose of Lima parish, and then at St. Barbara parish after the two parishes merged.
Fond memories Pinckney recalls are a food pantry that started at St. Rose of Lima parish as a Thanksgiving food donation drive and grew into a weekly program, and the times Monsignor Pashley spent at the St. Rose of Lima Catholic School in Overbrook, paying frequent visits to the students. “Monsignor lived for the children,” said Pinckney.
“I think it’s going to be hard for him,” said parishioner Susan McCrary, reflecting on Pashley’s retirement. McCrary, president and CEO of St. Ignatius Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Philadelphia, has been a long-time parishioner of both St. Rose of Lima and St. Barbara parishes.
“He’s so involved with the church, the school, the community,” McCrary said. “He’s so pastoral. He has a strong sense of community. He’s been at so many different Black churches. He knows how important that is to the Black community. It’s a special apostolate.”
Pashley is happy to be succeeded as pastor of St. Barbara parish by Thorne. The child he knew in the 1970s at Our Lady of the Holy Souls parish later became a seminarian in 1989. The two have a long friendship.
Thorne says as the new pastor he hopes to “continue the work that’s been done by Monsignor Pashley and the other pastors that have been there.”
“Each priest comes and plants more seeds in the ground and they continue to grow, always with God’s grace and the people. That’s what’s going to make St. Barbara continue to be a wonderful parish.”
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