DETROIT — Hundreds gathered March 11 to give tearful and soulful goodbyes to an icon in Detroit's Black Catholic community, laying to rest Fr. Norman Thomas, who died Feb. 26 at the age of 92.
With a full Gospel choir singing spiritual hymns and a standing-room-only congregation at Sacred Heart Church in Detroit's Eastern Market, which Fr. Thomas led for 54 years, friends, parishioners and clergy celebrated the longtime priest's life and asked God to welcome him into the kingdom.
Fr. Tyrone Robinson, a longtime friend of Fr. Thomas, gave the homily, extolling Fr. Thomas' achievements, including the respect he garnered among not only the Black Catholic community, but across the city.
"When he arrived here at Sacred Heart Church, he began doing what the Lord commissioned him to do, the Great Commission. Do you believe he did it well?" Fr. Robinson said, spurring applause, a standing ovation and hearty "amens."
In addition to pastoring Sacred Heart, Fr. Thomas also led St. Elizabeth Parish on Detroit's east side since 2007.
Several bishops concelebrated Fr. Thomas' funeral Mass, including Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, who offered his condolences to the two parish communities, and retired Auxiliary Bishops Donald F. Hanchon and Thomas J. Gumbleton.
Fr. Robinson said Fr. Thomas was able to earn the respect of those he shepherded by being an authentic witness to the hopes, dreams and cares of the community.
"Fr. Thomas came to Sacred Heart and immersed himself in the Black culture. You'd find him loving what we love, cherishing what we cherish," Fr. Robinson said. "He immersed himself in the culture of African-Americans in a way of integrity. Fr. Thomas touched the souls of the Black community.
"In touching the souls of Black folks, he learned what was important to us," Fr. Robinson added. "As Pope Francis said, pastors should smell like their sheep. Fr. Thomas did that."
Fr. Robinson urged those who loved Fr. Thomas to continue his legacy of fighting for the rights of Black people, women, the poor and oppressed, especially in his beloved city of Detroit, and to care for those who are disadvantaged.
"Never forget what Jesus said, 'Whatever you do to the least of your brothers and sisters, you do to me,'" Fr. Robinson said.
"And so, today, we commend him to the Lord. It is our time now to say, 'Yes, Lord, he was a good and faithful servant, and we commend him to your mercy.'"
Photos by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic