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May 24, 2009

A legacy of slavery and the Spirit’s power

By Dolores Madlener

STAFF WRITER

Interviewee

Spiritan Father Freddy Washington, pastor of St. Ambrose and St. Mary Magdalene parishes and director of formation for Spiritan seminarians studying in Chicago.Catholic New World/Karen Callaway

He is: Spiritan Missionary Father Freddy Washington, ordained in 1991. Pastor of both St. Mary Magdalene and St. Ambrose parishes on Chicago’s South Side. He is also director of formation for Spiritan seminarians who live in both parishes and study here.

Growing up: The second of five children, he attended public grade school and Bishop England High School in Charleston, S.C. “My father’s side of the family was Catholic from St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. My mother’s family was mostly Methodist and Baptists from Charleston. She converted to Catholicism about the time of their marriage. My grandfather was a Baptist minister. Ecumenism was a daily part of living.”

Deep Catholic roots: “My great-great-grandmother was Catholic. She was the last of 20 children and the only one not born in slavery. She had been baptized by a Spiritan. She died at age 107 and was able to be at my ordination.”

Mentor: “During grade school I met my first black priest. That was Father Egbert Figaro. He was a Spiritan assigned to our parish. Most people in Charleston had never seen a black priest. It was a novelty. It was his openness to us as altar servers. He would say, ‘Keep studying and doing the best you can because God has something in store for you.’ I thought, ‘If he can do it I can do it.’”

The call: Father Figaro was there for his graduations from high school and from the College of Charleston. The priest got him his first teaching job. “That year he told me there was a gathering of young Spiritans in Pittsburgh. He wondered if I’d like to go there for Holy Week. And I said yes. I remember meeting the young Spiritans for the first time because all the others I’d met were old! That was in 1984, my first year out of college. Maybe a year later I entered, and was sent to study at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.”

Church universal: “There I saw a world you don’t see from South Carolina — snow for the first time, hills and mountains, people of different cultures, it was eye-opening. I saw the church was bigger than my parish.” After graduation he was sent to a town in Quebec, Canada. “There were maybe 500 people in Farnham, and I think I was the only black person. No one spoke English.” It put his French lessons to the test. “I remember one lady asking me, ‘Does the color rub off?’ There were 13 of us Spiritans living in the house for a year to prepare for our vows.”

What are Spiritans? “We are missionaries who work among immigrants, or in places where a diocese has difficulty in finding someone to staff certain ministries or in places where people have heard the Gospel but it hasn’t taken root. So we work in evangelization all over the world.”

Ministry: After classes at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union in 1986, he went to Tanzania, Africa, as a deacon. “We worked with the Masai and Chagga tribes, and I loved it! It helped me get in touch with both my American part and my African part.” He came home for ordination. Assigned to Dayton, Ohio, he became a pastor of two merging African-American parishes after a few years. He also ministered in Harlem before returning to Chicago in 2005.

Music and song: “Our parish organist taught me the organ. It was wonderful and helped me pay for my college tuition. In my homilies I always pull in a song that speaks to the theme of the day. Recently I used one called “I Don’t Feel No Way Tired.” It says, ‘I don’t believe God has brought us this far to leave us.”

Perseverance: “My great-great - grandmother talked about the priest who walked with them in those uncertain times. I think that’s what I’ve responded to: walking with people in their sorrow, pains and uncertainties.”