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Honoring Donna Grimes: Servant Leader and Lifelong Advocate for Black Catholics

By Sydney Clark

Jul 8, 2024

National Leader Starts Next Chapter in Life
Donna Grimes and Archbishop Shelton Joseph Fabre, Louisville in 2022

When Washingtonian Donna Grimes was in kindergarten, she dreamed of becoming a secretary. Her wish unknowingly became a reality.

 

Last September, Grimes retired from her 12-year role with the United States Conference of Catholics Bishops as its assistant director of African American Affairs in the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church. Ansel Joseph Augustine of New Orleans now serves in her former position. He was appointed this year and began working in April.

 

Grimes spent roughly 23 years at the USCCB, working in various capacities.

 

“I feel very grateful. It was a good ride,” she said.

 

Grimes' passion for ministry work sprouted from her maternal grandfather, Thomas Leroy Campbell, a devout Catholic and former member of the Knights of St. John.

 

“He was like a saint to me. He was very loving,” she said.

 

Her grandfather kept a small statue of then-blessed Martin de Porres on his dresser, the only Black Catholic leadership figure Grimes saw for years.

 

Coincidentally, Grimes’ career mirrors de Porres’ commitment to faith, social justice and racial harmony.

 

“She was always interested in intercultural ministry, and she was very good with clergy,” said Dr. Kathleen Dorsey Bellow, professor and director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans, who met Grimes around 2010.

 

During the summer, Grimes teaches a one-week course at the Institute, “Building Cultural Competency for Ministry in the African Diaspora,” with David Okonkwo, a 2018 Institute alum.

 

“Many African American parishes have African pastors who aren’t familiar with African American culture,” Bellow said. “Her course had mostly priests. Some of them were white and weren’t that familiar with Black culture. It was a place where they could ask questions without judgment.”

 

She and Grimes serve on the USCCB’s Subcommittee on African American Affairs, the “official voice” of the African American Catholic community.

 

Grimes invited Bellow to join the group, where now-retired Bishop Joseph N. Perry of Chicago serves as chair.

 

Perry also chairs the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, formed in 2017, and he oversees the process of encouraging the Vatican to beatify venerable Fr. Augustus Tolton, the first Black American priest in the country.

 

“Working with Donna was a lovely experience,” Perry said. “She was the right person for that position. She has her finger on the pulse speed of African American Catholic life across the country.”

 

He and Grimes collaborated on several USCCB-related projects, but Perry said one of the most memorable experiences was contributing to the 2018 pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts.”

 

“We bounced ideas off one another and provided various edits on the document, highlighting wording and language we felt could be emphasized,” he said.

 

Some criticized the letter as “too soft with no action behind it,” Grimes noted.

 

“It was very challenging, but I felt I could defend it. That document can’t do everything, but it went further than other statements,” she explained.

 

Bellow said pastoral letters should get more attention, but not a lot of people read them.

 

“Oftentimes, the connection with people's lives isn’t there, so I'm always grateful when bishops collaborate with real people like Donna. It reminds them of their former lay status when they weren’t princes of the Church,” she added.

 

A letter that Grimes, Bellow and Perry want to specifically amplify is the September 1984 pastoral letter on evangelization, “What We Have Seen and Heard,” written by the 10 Black bishops in the U.S. at the time. This year marks the letter’s 40th anniversary.

 

“The statement was so well written,” Grimes said.

 

“We, the descendants of Africans brought to these shores, are now called to share our faith and to demonstrate our witness to our risen Lord…The Holy Spirit now calls us all to do the work of evangelization,” the letter states.

 

Evangelization is the heart of the Church’s mission, and it should always be the focus, Grimes emphasized.

 

For Bellow, the Black bishops’ letter was pivotal.

 

“I love that document. It was the first time I read anything Catholic that told us who we are as Black people,” she said.

 

Perry said the letter’s 40th anniversary is a reminder that Black Catholics are still here.

 

“We’ve been here for a long time, and we wish to continue being agents of reform, strength and renewal in the church.”

 

Grimes reflected on the global humanitarian crises, racism and more, echoing that the Church could be more vocal “about things we see so clearly,” she said.

 

Before Grimes left the USCCB, she helped to launch an HBCU outreach initiative to develop Catholic campus ministries at HBCUs.

 

The initiative evolved from the July 2023 National Black Catholic Congress, where students shared their need for more support and community on campus.

 

“These things must be intentionally funded. I wanted to elevate awareness about existing and potential Black Catholics at HBCUs,” Grimes said.

 

While she is no longer involved with the initiative, one of the initiative’s goals is to soon develop a website, which will track Catholic news and events at HBCUs nationwide.

 

Although not a direct result of the initiative, students at Howard University now have the Sr. Thea Bowman Catholic Student Center, which was dedicated and opened in August 2023.

 

It’s a great step forward, according to Grimes. She acknowledged how young adults within the Church have been outspoken and bold.

 

“They're meeting and planning ministry for themselves, and I’m glad to see it. We need their ideas and voices. Some of us are too old now to relate to what's real in their lives.”

 

While Grimes is enjoying retirement, she remains active by spending more time with family, especially her 92-year-old father, and regularly attending mass and events at her church, St. Teresa of Avila in Southeast Washington, D.C.

 

She also makes herself available for workshops, lectures and occasional promotions for her 2017 book, “All God's People: Effective Catechesis in a Diverse Church.”

 

“COVID showed me the way. Like it's time to go, it's time to turn the page,” Grimes said.

 

 

Photo captions below in order of appearance, right to left.

  1. The 2021 Meeting of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium, featuring Donna Grimes (in yellow) and Dr. Kathleen Dorsey Bellow (bottom right sitting on armchair). Photo Courtesy: Institute for Black Catholic Studies.

  2.  Donna Grimes and Arleen Young Jeter, a classmate from Elizabeth Seton High School and St. Anthony grade school, at the 2024 Sisters in the Spirit of Reflection in Washington, D.C. Photo Courtesy: Donna Grimes.


  3. Donna Grimes and Archbishop Shelton Joseph Fabre at his installation ceremony for the Archdiocese of Louisville in 2022. Photo Courtesy: Donna Grimes.


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