Fr. Rayford Emmons

Fr. Rayford Emmons, Parochial Vicar of Holy Cross Parish in Mt. Airy, is celebrating 50 years as the first Black Catholic ordained priest ordained for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. This year also commemorates the 281st Anniversary of the Baptism of the first Black Catholic in Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley in April 1743.

Fr. Emmons was born in West Philadelphia on June 25, 1948. He was raised in the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) church. Both of Fr. Emmons’ parents were active in that congregation and served as his models for faith and service.

Junior high was transformative for Fr. Emmons where his principal was fantastic at giving students opportunities to grow. She helped them see the beauty in the diversity of their classmates: Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Black, White, Latino, and Asian. All felt confident and affirmed. In the main entrance of the school, there was a large and visible saying for all to see: “I thought I heard the voice of God and climbed the highest steeple. But said the voice, ‘Go down again. I dwell among the people.’” That quote resonated deeply with young Rayford. And so, his journey began.

When he was 15,  Fr. Emmons was baptized Catholic during a Christmas Eve Vigil in 1963. Focused on education and eager to grow his spiritual life, he convinced his parents to let him attend a Catholic school, among the few schools that were fully integrated at the time. That move led to a thriving year for Rayford, and his self-development and self-improvement soared.

Knowing he wanted to be in public service, Rayford thought he wanted to become a foreign missionary. However, there were no Black priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia at the time, so it made sense for his mission to take place here instead.

Against the odds, he completed the program of priestly formation at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary. Recalling his time at seminary, Fr. Emmons remarked, “I really loved my classmates and I’m so proud of them as priests. They are all dedicated and hardworking and good at their priestly work.”

He remembers being at a class retreat as a seminarian where they were asked about their expectations as priests. The responses included, “We will not be easily accepted; we must practice what we preach.” After a year or two, when the group was brought together on retreat again, they all were shocked at how accepted they were, and that people wanted them to be successful. His wish is that more men of color aspire to the Catholic priesthood.

As a Black priest, Fr. Emmons did not know what to expect in his ministry, but the support he received has been inspiring. “When the odds were against me, the people were so supportive. Being a priest has made me have to grow spiritually and to see the truth of the gospel.”

Reflecting on his favorite part about being a priest, Fr. Emmons shares that it is the diversity of the people and the diversity of the situations he has worked in. He likes being able to work with all kinds of people from all walks of life. It is never boring. He has served in 14 parishes throughout the area: urban and suburban, struggling and thriving, diverse and non-diverse. He spent over 20 years in hospital, nursing home, and prison ministries. He has served with a joyful heart in every situation regardless of how enriching or challenging it was.

A persistent learner, Fr. Emmons was never in a school he didn’t like. “I truly love learning!” He encourages everyone to never stop learning and to always try to do what is right.

Moving forward, Fr. Emmons expressed that he would like to spend time authenticating his experience as a Black priest. Since he is associated with African-American and various multicultural Catholic organizations; he would love to accumulate information over the last 50 years or beyond from all over the world and write a book or an almanac on the Black Catholic experience worldwide. And perhaps form a resource library on the topic.

There are many memorable milestones that have taken place in Philadelphia since 1743. The ordination, life and ministry of Fr. Emmons is one of them. Congratulations, Fr. Emmons! We are proud of you and inspired by your life! On behalf of all those whom you have served, across many parishes and organizations, in all sorts of situations, we thank you.

We thank you for showing up and for giving of yourself every day. We thank you for inspiring us with your homilies that you plan so diligently. We thank you for loving Jesus so deeply and so generously sharing that love with all of us and all those you encounter.

God bless you and keep you for many more years to come.


Veronica Alvarado is the Director of Marketing and Development at Holy Cross Parish in Mount Airy, Philadelphia.