Farewell to Father Paul Williams as he begins new chapter

Franciscan Father Paul Williams believes that St. Joseph has played a special role in his priesthood.

As a child, he attended a parish and school named after St. Joseph. He was ordained in a church named after the saint.

And, after 26 years of service in South Carolina, on April 15 he started his new assignment as pastor of St. Joseph Church in Wilmington, Del., the oldest historically African American Catholic parish in the Diocese of Wilmington.

He said the new role will be a challenge, but he looks forward to helping the parish with renewal and outreach to the community.

Over the years, Father Williams served at two historically black parishes in South Carolina — St. Anthony of Padua in Greenville from 1987 to 2002 and St. Martin de Porres in Columbia from 2002-2011. He also was the diocesan Vicar for African-American Catholics for several years. Most recently, he was pastor of St. Joseph Church in Anderson.

“My whole experience here has been very fulfilling,” Father Williams said. “I fell in love with South Carolina and the Catholic community here. People are warm, welcoming and excited about their faith. South Carolina Catholics are proud of their Catholicism and willing, when necessary, to defend their faith and not be passive.”

Father Williams said the people of this state ushered in a new era in his priesthood.

When he became pastor at St. Anthony of Padua, it was his first time serving in a parish. Before, he lived in a Franciscan community with 80 other priests in New York City. At St. Anthony, he officiated at his first baptism and his first wedding.

“The people of St. Anthony nurtured me and were very patient with me as I learned how to be a parish priest,” he said.

During his years at St. Martin de Porres, Father Williams led the parish through the building of a new church and a rectory, and renovations of its school.

“I think I was able to help that community rediscover the gifts they had, and encouraged them to use those to build up the life of the parish,” he said.

He said that all of the places he served offered him new opportunities to share the Gospel, and he was also excited to see the Catholic population grow in size and diversity over the years. Many parishes that were once mainly African-American have now become more multicultural, welcoming members of many backgrounds while still working to maintain a sense of black Catholic history and identity.

People from around the diocese paid tribute to Father Williams at a dinner held April 5 during the Black Catholic Family Reunion in Greenville. They also joined him at conference events the following day to wish him farewell.

Kathy Schmugge, coordinator of the Family Life Office, said the priest was a constant advocate for the most vulnerable in society, including the unborn and the poor.

“He is compassionate and passionate for both woman and child,” she said. “He has supported families and has been a spiritual father to many.”

Sister Roberta Fulton, of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, said the Franciscan was the reason she returned to South Carolina to become principal at St. Martin de Porres School. She had worked there previously but was serving at Niagara University in Buffalo, N.Y., when she received his call.

“He is always gracious about giving and selfless in reaching out to others and helping bring forth the best in people,” she said. “He was a true missionary because he spread the love of the Lord to all those he met. Many people were brought back to the faith because of him.”

Roosevelt Cummings, a member of St. Martin de Porres Church, fondly recalled Father Williams’ years as his pastor, as well as his support of the Knights of Columbus. “He was more than a priest to us — he was a friend, a person who was understanding, a counselor, someone you always wanted to be around,” Cummings said.

Photo:  Fr Williams (top); Terena Starks (left) and Julia Starks (right) of Greenville, two of many people who said goodbye to him before he left for his new assignment.