Advertisements ad

February 15, 2009

Lambert broke down barriers through his ordination

By Hilary Anderson


Father Rollins Lambert, who passed away Jan. 25, had the distinction of being the first African American to be ordained a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago. But the color of his skin was not what his St. Mary of the Lake Seminary classmates said they saw in him.

Those who were ordained alongside Lambert in 1949 saw a distinguished man, a scholar, a gentleman’s gentleman. They called him a beloved friend from the first time they met Rollins, as they called him, to the day he died.

“He made quite an impression on our class when he joined us,” said retired Father Joseph Pastick. “Everyone accepted him in the seminary. We took his being black for granted. It was his companionship, knowledge and wit that we so cherished.”

Other seminary classmates agreed.

“There was no discrimination,” said Father Thomas Powers.

“We didn’t even think about it. We loved the man. I remember how sometimes a group of us on a free evening would squeeze into Rollins’ small room to chat. One time there were 18 people in his room.”

Powers said that one of his best memories while at Mundelein was walking around the lake there with Lambert and other classmates discussing any number of subjects.

“He was so well liked and respected that we elected him our class president,” said Pastick.

To the best of their memories there was only one ugly racial incident that occurred during Lambert’s seminary days and it happened while on a trip. Classmate Father Joseph Wojcik was working at Quigley then and invited Lambert to join him and some students on their visit to the nation’s capital.

“The only bad experience we encountered was in Washington, D.C. Rollins was not allowed to stay in the same hotel we did. He had to stay in a hotel for ‘Coloreds.’ We could not even eat in some restaurants together,” said Wojcik. “The students were furious. I think that was the first exposure to racism for many of them.’

Lambert’s friends point to the road that brought him to the seminary as being perhaps the most remarkable thing about him, not his skin color.

“Rollins distinguished himself from the time he was a young boy,” said retired Father Leon Wagner.

“He got his concern for learning from his mother. Rollins completed high school in two years and then went on to the University of Chicago. Rollins loved Latin and once won recognition as being the best Latin scholar in Illinois.”

It was his love of Latin that took him to a liturgy at Holy Name Cathedral — even though he was not Catholic.

“He heard the priest chanting the Gospel in Latin, ‘You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church,’” said Wagner.

“That piqued his interest in Catholicism.”

It was while at the University of Chicago that Lambert converted.

It was Lambert’s profound love of the liturgy that attracted the attention of Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand, then rector of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary. At the time, only students who graduated from Quigley could go on to the seminary.

Hillenbrand facilitated Lambert’s entry into the seminary and mentored him.

Lambert’s seminary classmates say that following Hillenbrand’s departure as seminary rector, the seminarian was held back from progressing through the levels necessary then for ordination.

But suddenly and without explanation, Lambert was put in the 1949 ordination class. None of the priests interviewed for this story knew why or who, if anyone, advocated for him.

“It was wonderful to see Rollins standing there with us on the day of our ordination,” said Wagner.

“So many lives were touched by him as a result, including ours. He will be missed.”