By ROB HERBST
The Catholic Week
ROBERTSDALE – Rev. Msgr. William R. James cared.
He cared for African-Americans by being a strong voice in the civil rights movement. He cared for farm workers as he marched with famed labor leader Cesar Chavez in the 1970s. He cared for developmentally disabled children as he made constant trips to Father Purcell Memorial Exceptional Children’s Center during his time at City of St. Jude in Montgomery.
He also cared for migrants as he made efforts to immerse himself into the Spanish-speaking community in Robertsdale. He cared for the deaf as he learned sign language. He cared for those who needed a hand by mowing their lawns.
He cared for everyone, young and old and did so throughout his 65 years of being a priest before dying June 6, one day after his 90th birthday. Msgr. James served as pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Robertsdale from 1993-2011 in his final assignment in active ministry and remained a fixture in the parish community upon retiring.
“Just a great, very caring kind of person,” said Sister Margaret Harte, PBVM, principal of St. Patrick Catholic School in Robertsdale.
“All stories (about Fr. James) remain the same — Fr. James was there when they needed him,” current St. Patrick pastor Fr. Jim Morrison said in his homily during the Mass of Christian Burial at St. Patrick on June 8, which preceded burial June 10 at Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham.
Most notably, Msgr. James was at the immediate aftermath of 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Msgr. James’ native Birmingham in 1963, which killed four girls. He also took part in several protests in the 1960s against racial injustice.
Sister Margaret speculated this side of Fr. James is largely due to his mother, Marian.
“I remember him telling me his mother used to leave out clothes and food for blacks to pick up,” Sister Margaret said. “He probably picked up some from her. She thought it was very unfair.”
Msgr. James also thought it was unfair how laborers were treated in the 1970s and went to California to support Chavez.
“He loved fighting for the underdog,” Fr. Morrison said. “He loved to champion their cause.”
Msgr. James was certainly bold and also very much influenced by Vatican II. In a 2011 Mobile Press-Register article Msgr. James said “Vatican II set me on fire.”
In that same article, Msgr. James also recognized he wasn’t exactly conventional.
“I loved being called a radical,” he said.
While his politics might not be for everybody, something about Msgr. James was more uniting than dividing.
“Many of the people I would visit that loved Fr. James would make it known that they didn’t agree with his politics. Some people very much agreed and they made that known as well,” Fr. Morrison said.
“For the most part though, for this day and age, people were able to see him for who he was and see past whatever theology or political thoughts he had. They saw that this is a person who is a good man, a man who loves God, a man who loves God’s people and wants to serve them. We can disagree about politics and still agree he’s a good person. (Today) the political viscerality is if somebody has a different thought, they’re a bad person. He was a counterexample to that.”
In Alabama, Msgr. James held a wide variety of assignments. He taught at McGill Institute and served as assistant superintendent of schools and Diocesan Director of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine in the 1960s. He also served at Little Flower Catholic Church, Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and St. Francis Xavier Parish in Mobile, then was assigned to City of St. Jude in Montgomery. He taught at the school in the early 1970s and was pastor and administrator of City of St. Jude from 1978-89.
City of St. Jude includes the Father Purcell Memorial Exceptional Children’s Center, which cares for severely developmentally disabled children.
“That was a very big mission of his,” Sister Margaret said. “One of the nurses told me she worked 19 years for (Msgr. James). She said he would come every single night he was present and go to every bed, I think 49 children, and he would bless them and hold their hands. He had a great love.”
Msgr. James was then pastor of Mother Mary Parish in Phenix City before arriving in Robertsdale.
During his time at St. Patrick, his lawn-mowing ministry bloomed.
Fr. Morrison first heard of the lawn-mowing priest when he was pastor at nearby St. Agatha Parish in Bay Minette. Fr. Morrison was visiting bringing Holy Communion to someone in a nursing home and the recipient asked Fr. Morrison if he knew Fr. James.
“He’s the reason why I’m Catholic,” the recipient told Fr. Morrison.
“She went on to tell me many years ago her friend had become a widow and she would often be visiting her friend. A truck would show up, a lawn mower would be unloaded and someone would go about cutting the grass,” he added. “She inquired ‘how much does it cost to keep your yard looking like this?’ And the lady explained ‘this isn’t my yard man, this is my pastor. This is Fr. James.’ ”
Msgr. James apparently loved his lawn-mower ministry. He made daily trips to the post office in Robertsdale and would often enter sweaty after mowing a lawn.
“(The post office workers said) ‘Fr. James, it’s midday. You cannot be out in this heat,’ ” Sister Margaret said. “He said to them ‘Listen, if you find me dead behind the lawn mower, just know that I died happy.’ ”
Family survivors of Msgr. James include his brother, Dr. Thomas O’Conner James (Ann) of Birmingham and his sister, Margaret James Borders (Ray) of Shelton, Conn. He was preceded in death by his parents, Russell William James and Marian (Welsh) James; a sister, Patricia James Thornton, and brother, Msgr. Robert Joseph James.
Survivors also include a host of friends, Catholic and non-Catholic, who adored Fr. James. Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial and remarked how full St. Patrick Catholic Church was for the Mass.
“I’ve got to tell you good people I don’t often come to a funeral of some 90-year-old guy and have a church filled with people,” Archbishop Rodi said. “In these past several days, as Fr. Bill was bedridden, so many people went by to see him. Why? Why are there so many people here today? … Because he touched so many hearts. He didn’t throw his life away at all. He gave it to us as a gift, to God and the people of the Church.”