One of the most influential African American priests in North Carolina and a former pastor at Wilmington's St. Mary Catholic Church, Monsignor Thomas Paul Hadden, died Monday (Oct. 8) after a short illness.
He was 83.
The son of an African Methodist Episcopal preacher in Raleigh, Hadden grew up exploring the faiths around him. Hadden attended a Catholic elementary school and by middle school, he was rising early each Sunday to attend Mass, going to an Episcopal Sunday school with his friends, and returning home in time for his father's Sunday worship service.
And when Hadden told his parents he wanted to convert to Catholicism in the eighth grade, "my father was not opposed at all," he said in a 2004 interview with "Catholic Perspective", a TV program of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh. Though his parents died when he was a teenager, Hadden's brother's family supported him as he decided to pursue the priesthood.
But trying to find seminaries that would accept a young African American seeking the priesthood in the 1950s was difficult at best, but Hadden persevered to become the first African American seminarian at the North American College in Rome, ordained in 1958.
According to the Diocese of Raleigh, he served at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Newton Grove, St. Paul Church in New Bern, St. Joseph in Raleigh, Rector at Sacred Heart Cathedral and St. Mary Church in Wilmington. He also served as Vicar for African Ancestry Catholics from 1988 until his retirement from that position in August 2011.
He served in New Bern during integration of its schools and, while he was accepted by the African Americans in that community, he dealt with tension from the white community, according to a tribute from the Raleigh diocese.
During his time in Wilmington, Hadden established interfaith low income housing for senior citizens, later called Hadden Hall and expanded St. Mary's social ministries, inviting the Sisters of St. Ursula to the church.
New Hanover County North Carolina room librarian Joe Sheppard remembers Hadden for his emphasis on meditation before Mass.
"With Hadden he kept the tradition of silence," Sheppard said. "When you came into church, it was quiet and a time of reflection, and you would sit there and meditate and prepare yourself for the Mass. I liked that. He encouraged that."
Hadden was also a great believer in Catholic education and its outreach to the African American communities of North Carolina. At St. Mary for 15 years, he also served as director of St. Mary Catholic School.
"In the early 20th century, there were about 20 places where African American congregations existed in the state, and the church simply followed the social customs of the time, basically of segregation," he said in the 2004 diocesan TV program. "The diocese brought in various religious orders to serve the African American congregations, and most of these places began Catholic schools as a real source of evangelism to the African American population. And so the Catholic schools gave African Americans a real opportunity for a quality education back then."
Father Ned Shlesinger is still passing on the wisdom he learned by serving as an associate priest at St. Mary with Hadden. Shlesinger is now the director of vocations for the Diocese of Raleigh, mentoring young priests.
"He was the great mentor, he had a lot of experience, he had a commitment to the poor," Shlesinger said. "He was very committed to the community. He said at one time he had 17 parochial vicars (newly ordained priests) that he supervised. He taught me to learn how to have balance between work and prayer and to recognize what is important and not important."
Hadden's funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday (Oct. 11) at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Raleigh.