Bishop Joseph N. Perry’s 23 years in Milwaukee as a young priest laid the groundwork for his 25 years as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
“I consider Milwaukee my formative home,” Bishop Perry said in reflecting on his vocation following his retirement in September.
Bishop Perry attended St. Lawrence Seminary High School in Mount Calvary and Saint Francis de Sales Seminary. He was ordained in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 1975 and served in a variety of roles here until Pope John Paul II appointed him as a bishop in 1998.
Like Archdiocese of Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, Bishop Perry grew up in Chicago.
In addition to their Milwaukee connections, the two are close in age and shared time as auxiliary bishops in Chicago from 2001 to 2005.
“I have the utmost and tremendous respect for Joe Perry, a true native son of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee,” Archbishop Listecki said recently. “He has served the Church with great intelligence, but (also) his great pastoral sensitivity.”
Archbishop Listecki recalled that they shared time in Chicago when Cardinal Frances George was archbishop there.
“Cardinal Francis George always depended on Bishop Perry to take over situations that were most difficult, and (Bishop Perry) would accept them gladly. He took those so the people of God and the Church would be served, and bring harmony and peace to those situations.”
Bishop Perry said he regards Archbishop Listecki as a good friend.
“We both served as auxiliary bishop of Chicago, we both are canonists, we both taught in seminary. I have felt genuine affirmation and encouragement from him over the years and deem him a brother bishop,” Bishop Perry said.
Bishop Perry, one of a handful of Black Catholic bishops, offered guidance when Archdiocese of Milwaukee Steering Committee representatives worked for two years to produce a 2019 Black Catholic Pastoral Plan.
Bishop Perry told the Catholic Herald that the biggest challenges of Black Catholics include being known as intricate members of the Catholic Church in the United States; having contributions of history, suffering and leadership acknowledged; and having sufficient priestly, religious and lay leadership numbers for the benefit of the whole church.
“The obstacle to this recognition by other Catholics is the uninformed perception by others of African Americans as simply a group on the margins or as recent converts, when Black Catholics have been a part of the Church from the very beginnings of Christianity.”
Bishop Perry’s accomplishments in Milwaukee following his ordination include:
- Adjunct Professor, Canon Law Studies, Marquette University School of Law (1996-98) and Sacred Heart School of Theology, Hales Corners (1983-98).
- Pastor, All Saints Parish (1995-98), which was one of two parishes formed in 1995 after the archdiocese closed or merged nine North Side parishes.
- Chief Judicial Officer of the Tribunal for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee (1983-95), in addition to time at the Tribunal since 1976.
- C.L. — Licentiate in Canon Law, The Catholic University of America, Washington D.C., (1981) — where he was a classmate of now-Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, who later served as the archbishop of Milwaukee from 2002-09.
- Associate pastor, St. Nicholas Parish, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (1975-76), which was merged with St. Albert and Holy Redeemer in 1992 to form Blessed Trinity, which later became part of St. Catherine on Center Street.
Bishop Perry has served as the Chicago archbishop’s representative for Vicariate VI, an area including south and southeast Cook County, since he became an auxiliary bishop in 1998. As vicar there, he acted as a day-to-day administrator on the cardinal’s behalf regarding the needs and concerns of the people there. In 2018, his area included 61 parishes, 27,000 registered families, 21 elementary schools and six secondary schools.
Bishop Perry’s national work has included serving as board vice president for the Black Catholic Congress; chairman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee on African American Catholics; and national chaplain for the Knights of St. Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary.
He chairs the USCCB Ad-Hoc Committee Against Racism and has served as a canon law studies instructor at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, Mundelein, Illinois, since 1997. He also has served on many other USCCB committees.
Bishop Perry recalled that the Capuchin Franciscans recruited him to attend St. Lawrence Seminary High School near Fond du Lac and he described his years there as “remarkable.”
“The Capuchin fathers run the seminary and it is one of the very few such high school seminaries remaining in the country right now. I consider the seminary as having set me on a solid path to explore my priestly vocation and it provided the young seminarians a ministerial worldview suitable for the times,” Bishop Perry said.
“The Capuchins were working in African-American parishes in Milwaukee, Detroit, Indigenous reservations in Montana, and Central American areas, including Bluefields, Nicaragua. We students were formed with a social-justice vision in hearing from and by witnessing their friars’ dedicated service to these mission and parish outposts,” he said.
After earning his undergraduate degree in Indiana, Bishop Perry eventually was received in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in his second year of theology at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary.
“Fr. Thomas Suriano encouraged me to apply. Milwaukee is a great local church and I was humbled by what they asked me to do following ordination — as an associate pastor at St. Nicholas Parish, working with the Catholic Family Life Program that oversaw the ministry to the separated and divorced, then asked by Archbishop (William E.) Cousins to come in to the Tribunal Offices, which entailed degreed canon law studies in between at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., working in various capacities in the tribunal inclusive of Judicial Vicar, then to pastor the newly-formed All Saints Parish in Milwaukee.”
“These opportunities brought me to greater self-knowledge and development of talents I never thought I had. I’ve had a fulfilling priesthood and episcopal service these 48 years.”
In addition to continuing work on the sainthood cause for the Venerable Augustus Tolton, Bishop Perry plans to continuing teaching canon law at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary at Mundelein, read more books and visit elderly relatives in his retirement.
Perry Continues as Tolton Sainthood Advocate
Archdiocese of Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Joseph N. Perry will continue in his role as liaison to the Vatican regarding the cause for sainthood for an African-American priest.
“I am particularly pleased that Bishop Perry will continue in his pivotal role as diocesan postulator for the canonization cause of Venerable Augustus Tolton,” said Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, upon Bishop Perry’s retirement in September.
A postulator guides a cause for someone put forth for beatification or canonization. The judicial processes required by the Church include conducting thorough investigations into the life of the candidate.
Born in 1854, the Venerable Augustus Tolton overcame numerous challenges — birth into slavery, his father’s death, poverty and a lack of access to education — to become the first priest of acknowledged African-American descent.
Fr. Tolton ministered on the south side of Chicago until his death at age 43 in 1897. His path to sainthood was opened by the Church in 2010, and he was declared venerable, the first stage of canonization, in 2019.
“His virtuous life provides a model of how to be Christian and Catholic while navigating the choppy waters of racial acceptance,” said Bishop Perry, who was ordained in and served with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee until he became a bishop in 1998.
In the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in October 2021, Bishop Perry led a pilgrimage at the Basilica and National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians in Hubertus to celebrate the Venerable Augustus Tolton’s sainthood cause.
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee Tolton Catholic Scholars program is inspired by its namesake. The program’s aim is to help active Catholics of all ages in local urban parishes who might struggle to bridge the gap when other funding does not pay all postsecondary school costs. Find out more about applying to or donating to the Tolton Catholic Scholars program at https://www.archmil.org/Tolton-Catholic-Scholars.