The son of an African Methodist Episcopalian minister, there were many ways Monsignor Thomas Hadden could have chosen to stand apart from his family, but his father did not protest when 12-year-old Hadden decided to convert to Catholicism.
“He was very determined,” said Monsignor Gerald Lewis, a priest in New Bern who knew Hadden for more than 50 years.
Hadden, a Raleigh native and the state’s most prominent African-American Catholic priest, died Monday in Southern Pines. He was 83.
According to Bishop Michael Burbidge of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, Hadden was “a courageous witness to the Gospel, often in the face of great adversity.”
His distinguished path to priesthood presented obstacles other priests did not have to overcome.
Educated in seminaries in Mississippi and Indiana, he became the first African-American to enroll at the North American College in Rome, Italy.
“It was a challenge for him because he was not just the first, but the only (black),” said Lewis.
Hadden was prepared to be a missionary abroad because he did not think he would be allowed to be a priest in the United States, Lewis said.
Bishop Vincent Waters, however, heard about Hadden and invited him to serve in North Carolina.
“If not for Bishop Waters, North Carolina would have missed out on Hadden,” said Lewis.
When Hadden was assigned to be the priest of St. Paul Church, where Lewis now serves, it was a predominantly white parish.
A small protest against his appointment was held outside the church rectory, where Hadden lived, in 1965.
He was not invited to community events attended by previous priests, and several members of the congregation stopped attending.
“He didn’t let their opposition to his color influence him from doing what a priest should do,” said Lewis.
‘He won them over’
Deaths and marriages didn’t cease just because the pastor was black, so he was still the person in place to perform funerals and weddings, and people saw that his skin color did not make him perform any differently at those duties.
Lewis believes it was not hatred that made the congregation unreceptive, but the newness of the idea. “He won them over with his goodness,” Lewis said.
Not only did Hadden help white congregations overcome their stereotypes about his race, he also served to advance the role of African-American Catholics after being appointed to the role of vicar of the African Ancestry Catholics.
“He certainly worked for the benefit of everyone,” Lewis said.
After serving at several churches across the state, Hadden became the rector at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Raleigh from 1973 to 1983. In 2000, Pope John Paul II appointed him to the rank of monsignor.
Hadden lived his last years in a retirement community in Southern Pines where 16 other Catholic priests also live.
The Reception of the Body and Vigil for the Deceased will take place on Wednesday at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Raleigh at 7 p.m. The Funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10:30 am on Thursday at Our Lady of Lourdes.