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‘It’s hard for us to go fishing’

fr-bill-croswsWilliam Cross’s mother wasn’t exactly thrilled when he converted to the Catholic faith.

Back then, in 1964, he was a University of Cincinnati student on scholarship to study business administration. “She was very skeptical about my conversion,” he recalls. She was even more adamant, a little over a year later, about another startling announcement by her son. 

fr-cross-2“When I told her I’d decided to enter the priesthood, she was against it,” he said.

But she agreed to learn more about her son’s new path. Which led to yet another unexpected development.

“I was the one who baptized her,” he said. “Both of my parents converted before they died. Dad only had about a sixth- or seventh-grade education, and he couldn’t understand a lot of what they were teaching him about the faith, so I took it on myself to instruct him.”

The young convert entered Mount St. Mary’s Seminary of the West and became Father William Cross in 1974. Today, at age 70, he’s officially retired, but like many of his senior brethren he remains busy with priestly duties, celebrating public Masses and helping in other ways.

“It’s hard for us to go fishing while the younger guys are doing and three and four parishes,” he said.

A Cincinnati native, Father Cross graduated from Taft High School in the city’s West End neighborhood. “I grew up with Catholic friends and I was always impressed with their faith,” he says. “Then in the ‘60s I saw priests who were active in social justice and civil rights. I was impressed with their commitment.”

fr-edward-conlonThe Catholic high school in the West End, St. Martin de Porres, had closed in 1964 and been converted into a recreation center. There, as a young college student, William Cross met Father Edward F. Conlon (right), a diocesan priest who became a major influence for the young business major.

“I used to go there and shoot pool and play basketball,” Father Cross recalled. “He would come down and play basketball with us.” The two men began discussing religion, and soon “he gave me instruction in the faith and I was received into the church.”

“Once baptized I started going to church every morning before school,” Father Cross said. A priest noticed him doing so, and mentioned it to another. They approached him about considering a vocation.

fr-w-crossAfter deciding, he received help from Father Conlon in easing the apprehensions of Father Cross’s mother. “He told her that as a diocesan priest I’d be staying close to home, not going off to some other part of the world,” Father Cross said. “She could accept that.”

(Father Conlon died in 1997 at age 77. By then he’d been officially retired but working as a missionary pastor in the Caribbean island of Grenada. His nephew Daniel Conlon is bishop of the Joliet Diocese in Illinois.)

To enter the seminary “I had to get a dispensation because I’d only been Catholic for one and a half years,” Father Cross recalled. Cincinnati Archbishop Karl J. Alter granted the request, and Father Cross began the studies that led to his priestly ordination in 1974.

He didn’t miss his former career path. “I wasn’t really interested in business administration, but I had a scholarship from Taft and they kind of pegged me for that.

“Our counselors didn’t work very hard with us,” he said, laughing.

riversFather Cross was the second African American to be ordained in the Cincinnati archdiocese. The first was Father Clarence Joseph Rivers, a liturgical innovator and composer ordained in 1956. Father Rivers died in 2004 at age 73.

“After he died I was the only one for a while,” Father Cross said. “He was virtually retired for most of my priesthood, living in Avondale across the street from the Zoo. He still did music workshops but had no assignment.” (You can listen to Father Rivers’ “God is Love” here. A third African-American priest, Father Reynaldo Taylor, was ordained in the Cincinnati archdiocese in 2007.)

fr-william-cross“My first assignment was Resurrection in Dayton, then to St. Joseph in the East End as associate pastor for four years,” Father Cross recalled. “I wanted to go into teaching, so that led me to McNicholas High School for two years and  I served at Guardian Angels parish in Mount Washington for four.“

He later taught religion at Purcell High School (now Purcell Marian) for 17 years and McAuley High School for two. Pastoral assignments included at St. Margaret Mary in North College Hill and St. Andrew in Avondale.

Considering that Father Cross was initially attracted to the social activism of priests and nuns in the ‘60s, he was asked whether he sees sufficient commitment today.

“Oh definitely,” he replied. “There’s a tremendous amount of interest in social justice.

fr-c“The archbishop and the [U.S.] bishops are concerned with it. Of course we have to avoid politics, but when there’s an issue they come in and get involved.”

Father Cross lives in an apartment in Pleasant Ridge. He regularly celebrates Masses at his former parish, St. Margaret Mary, and at nearby Assumption Church in Mount Healthy. He’s also remained active with Purcell Marian, conducting retreats and celebrating Masses there.

“Teaching high school was the best,” he said. “That was the most rewarding part of my priesthood. I really learned a lot from working with students.

“It’s all been a great reward.” _____________________________________________

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