HYDE PARK : Beloved Priest Given a Warm Send-Off

At the farewell reception for Father Charles Burns, the messages scripted in lavender and green icing across the cake said it all: “Vaya Con Dios” and “Go With God.”

“He’s truly a priest for all people,” said Pauline Overfield, a 39-year Crenshaw resident and parishioner of Burns’ church, St. John the Evangelist.

“I feel like I’m a part of him. I’ll be at a loss when he goes.”

For 10 years, Burns has held a special place in the hearts of local Catholics for his wit, warmth and commitment to bringing together the black and Latino members of his 1,000-family congregation.

At the church hall reception, more than 500 people--community and church groups, state Sen. Diane Watson and other local dignitaries--paid tribute to Burns in words, poetry and song in English and Spanish.


The affair clearly delighted Burns, a 60-year-old Mississippi native who is self-taught in Spanish.

“I’m a bridge builder between black and Latino groups,” he said.

“We have so much in common--love of family, love of ancestry and tradition. The family ties I’ve formed here are very strong.”

Burns’ July 1 departure to an Oakland parish is no surprise. His order, the Divine Word Missionaries, relocates its priests every nine years, and Burns had, in fact, overstayed his time at the church at Crenshaw Boulevard and 60th Street.

But that made it no easier for the many friends and followers he cultivated in Los Angeles to say goodby to “Father Charlie.”

“He really made himself available to the people--black, white, Hispanic, everybody,” said 88-year-old Cecilia Thie, a Hyde Park resident who attends Mass daily. “He overcame prejudice in his own life, and has done a tremendous thing here.”

Although Burns was reared in the African Methodist Episcopalian Church, he converted to Catholicism in the eighth grade and attended the Divine Word seminary in Bay St. Louis, Miss., one of the first in the country to recruit and educate African-Americans for the priesthood.

Burns later became the first African-American professional staff member to serve in the Washington office of the U.S. Catholic Conference.

He said such experiences developed the cultural sensitivity that has marked his 31 years of ministry, and which led to his involvement in setting up Casa Guadalupe, a house of study for Latinos, in East Los Angeles.

“Too often, when minorities are in the seminary, they’re assimilated too much into Anglo culture, and ultimately don’t want to serve their own people,” said Burns.

“Our order encouraged indigenous traditions. I could fuse the holy spirit tradition I was raised in with Catholic beliefs perfectly.”

Burns said his own ethnic background has enriched his work as a priest.

“Look at me. I’m mixed with Scotch-Irish, black, Native American,” he said, spreading his hands and breaking into a characteristically wide grin.

“If pastors take the lead in believing there is richness in cultural diversity, so will the flock. I’ve tried to pastor to them all.”