Father Wilbur Thomas

wilbur thomas

April 17, 1947 ~ December 6, 2022

Born in: Charlotte, NC
Resided in: Asheville, NC

The Very Rev. Wilbur N. Thomas, a trailblazing priest who served God and His people for 50 years as the Diocese of Charlotte’s first African American priest, passed away peacefully Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, at CarePartners Hospice Solace Center in Asheville, surrounded by family and friends. He was 75.

A Vigil and Rosary will be held from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, at the Basilica of St. Lawrence, located at 97 Haywood St. in Asheville, N.C. The Funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, also at the Basilica of St. Lawrence, with the Most Rev. Peter Jugis, Bishop of Charlotte, and Rev. Msgr. Michael Becker as principal celebrants. The service will be livestreamed at Very Rev. Wilbur Thomas Funeral Mass. A reception will follow in Laurentine Hall. The rite of committal and inurnment will take place at 11 a.m. Friday, Dec. 16, 2022, at St. Eugene Catholic Church, located at 72 Culvern St. in Asheville.

Wilbur Neely Thomas was born April 17, 1947, in Charlotte, N.C., and adopted as an infant by Wilbur O. and Ruth N. Thomas of Lexington, N.C. The Thomases were Methodist, but after a stroke left his dad bedridden when Wilbur was 10, the example of the local priest who came to visit inspired his parents to convert to Catholicism. When he was 12, Wilbur too decided to become Catholic.

In 1960, he was baptized and confirmed at his local parish, Our Lady of the Rosary in Lexington, by the Most Rev. Vincent S. Waters of the Diocese of Raleigh. His relationship with the Lord continued to deepen as he served at Mass and learned as much as he could about his newfound Catholic faith. As a teenager, he felt the call to become a priest while praying before the Blessed Sacrament at his Catholic high school, Bishop McGuinness. At first his parents disapproved of their only son becoming a priest, but by the time he was a senior in high school they consented. Not long after he turned 18, he was accepted into the seminary program for the Raleigh diocese and entered the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio.

Father Thomas was ordained to the priesthood on March 26, 1973 – the Feast of the Annunciation – by Bishop Waters at Our Lady of the Annunciation Catholic Church in Havelock, N.C. At the time, he was among the first African American Catholic priests ordained in North Carolina, and shortly after his ordination, he transferred to the newly formed Diocese of Charlotte as its first black Catholic priest.

Throughout his life Father Thomas remained devoted to serving the Lord and His people, and his tireless work as a priest encompassed parish ministry, ministry to young people and college students, ecumenical outreach and dialogue, and leadership that inspired laypeople across the diocese to become more involved in the life of the Church.

Father Thomas was a trailblazer in many ways, and not only as the first African American priest incardinated for the new Charlotte diocese. He laid the foundations for many of the ministries and programs in which tens of thousands of Catholics throughout western North Carolina now participate.

Among his first achievements was in building up ministry for young people in western North Carolina. He was appointed the Charlotte diocese’s first Catholic Campus Minister, serving at Wake Forest University, and he helped develop the diocese’s Campus Ministry Program. He also developed the diocese’s Youth Ministry Program and its Diocesan Youth Council, as well as serving as the first Youth Ministry director from 1976 to 1979.

In 1979, he helped organize the diocese’s second Diocesan Assembly on Evangelization, where he was its keynote speaker, and he helped coordinate planning assemblies that led up to the pivotal Diocese of Charlotte Synod in 1986-1987. Father Thomas was also a leader for the early Catholic Charismatic Renewal Movement, serving as its chaplain.

As an African American priest, Father Thomas inspired fellow black Catholics to get involved in the Church. He organized the diocese’s Committee of Black Catholic Ministry and Evangelization, now called the African American Affairs Ministry, and he helped arrange the diocese’s first Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. Even after his retirement in 2018 from active ministry, he continued to support and encourage the African American Affairs Ministry and its work.

Nationally, he was a longtime contributor to the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus (NBCCC) and its liaison to the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests (AUSCP).

He was also an ardent advocate for ecumenical outreach to other Christian denominations, particularly the Lutheran Church, where he was instrumental in establishing the Aquinas-Luther Conference, which began under the late Lutheran Bishop Michael McDaniel, then head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

Father Thomas was a rock of fraternal support, encouragement and counsel for his fellow priests, particularly in his role as diocesan Vicar of Priests from 1998 to 2002.

His pastoral ministry included serving as assistant pastor of St. Leo the Great in Winston-Salem (1973-1975) and of St. Patrick Cathedral in Charlotte (1975-1977); and as pastor of Our Lady of the Annunciation in Albemarle (1977-1979); Our Lady of Consolation in Charlotte (1979-1986), where he was the historically black Catholic parish’s first African American pastor; St. Aloysius in Hickory (1987-1998); St. Francis of Assisi in Jefferson (1999); and as rector of the historic Basilica of St. Lawrence in Asheville (2000-2018), his last pastoral assignment before retirement.

Later in life after the deaths of his adoptive parents, Father Thomas was able to locate his biological family and developed a close relationship with his half-sisters, Elaine Lash Sutton and Dr. Adrienne Lash Jones, and their families. He enjoyed spending holidays and reunions with his newfound family. He learned that their shared biological father, Wiley Immanuel Lash of Salisbury, had been a successful businessman, the leader of local desegregation efforts, and the first African American man to serve as mayor of Salisbury. His mother, Marion Gunn, had been a brilliant college graduate who worked at Livingstone College as secretary to the president.

His family, friends and fellow priests will remember his calming and melodic voice, his wise counsel, the charity and love he shared with everyone he knew, and most importantly, his personal relationship with Jesus Christ. His strong faith powered his lifelong efforts to help build up the Church in western North Carolina, and he encouraged everyone he encountered – whether it was young people, couples, families or his fellow priests – to always turn to God in prayer, keeping Him at the center of their lives and letting Him guide them.

He once told the Catholic News Herald, the diocese’s newspaper, that he cherished the time he spent praying before a crucifix and the Blessed Sacrament several times each day.

“That relationship has been the anchor for me,” he said. “Everything flows from that. I trust in His leading and guiding me through His Spirit. I trust myself to His will and His purpose for me every day.”

Father Thomas was preceded in death by his biological and adoptive parents, and his half-sister, Dr. Adrienne Lash Jones.

Survivors include his sister, Elaine Lash Sutton of Cary, N.C.; nieces Denise, Robin, Taborah, Shannon and Donnah; nephews Derek, Darryl and Brian; his fellow priests and numerous friends.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Father Wilbur Thomas Endowment Fund, c/o Foundation of the Diocese of Charlotte, 1123 S. Church St., Charlotte, N.C. 28203. Make checks payable to: Foundation of the Diocese of Charlotte, and note the endowment name in the memo line.

Groce Funeral Home on Patton Ave. is in charge of the arrangements.

Services

Funeral Home Assisting The Family:

Groce Funeral Home - Patton Ave.
1401 Patton Ave.
Asheville, NC 28806

(828)252-3535
http://www.grocefuneralhome.com

Vigil: December 13, 2022 4:00 pm - July 12, 2024 6:30 pm

Basilica of St. Lawrence DM
97 Haywood Street
Asheville, NC 28801

(828)252-6042

Funeral Mass: December 14, 2022 10:00 am

Basilica of St. Lawrence DM
97 Haywood Street
Asheville, NC 28801

(828)252-6042

Inurnment: December 16, 2022 11:00 am

St. Eugene's Catholic Church
72 Culvern Street
Asheville, NC 28804

(828) 254-5193
http://www.steugene.org

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Memories Timeline

Guestbook

  1. Father Thomas was my best friend. He was there when I was ordained 44 years ago . . . and the 14 years we worked together at the Basilica of Saint Lawrence were an absolute joy. His voice will make the choirs of angels jealous for all eternity!

  2. I am so grateful for the many years of your pastoral wisdom, friendship, and a shared love of literature and classical music. The sense of loss is profound. “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”.

  3. Father Thomas, Rest in peace. Through the love of God, shining in you you showed me the way back to the Catholic faith. Thank you for being a holy priest thank you for being my spiritual counselor you told me of the true presence of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ body blood soul in divinity in the holy sacrament the holy Eucharist, I heard that the first time through you. You gave me the greatest gift of all the true presence. Thank you for giving me all the holy sacraments of the catholic church. Forever grateful for holy matrimony, which we will never forget your love shining on all, thank you for understanding the light of Jesus that shines on me and not being afraid. A gift from God. We will truly miss you, our beloved friend. Holy priest of God for eternity. God bless you and pray for us Margaret and Bobby Thompson.

  4. I will always be grateful for the friendship and time we shared: during seminary formation days at the Josephinum, singing together in “The Folk Sound” and traveling around the country during those years. Grateful especially for the priesthood we shared these many years – Wil’s holiness, goodness and humility. He was truly a servant shepherd for God’s holy people, and a wonderful example for all of us of how to follow the Lord and love one another. I am grateful that through the years, we were able to keep in touch as much as we did, despite the thousands of miles between North Carolina and Utah. The choir of angels in heaven have now met their match! Precious Lord, lead him on!
    (Rev. Msgr.) Colin F. Bircumshaw, Diocese of Salt Lake City

    • As a fellow seminarian to Wilbur at The Josephinum, even though he was 3 yrs my senior, I considered him a good friend and really great guy. Although I hadn’t seen or spoken to him since my graduation and departure from college in May, ‘72, my most vivid memory of Wilbur was his outstanding singing voice and he being the lead vocalist of his group, The Folk Sound, comprised of he, Charlie Stokes, Jim McKenna and Colin Bircumshaw. What a group. More renown was Wilbur and the group’s signature farewell song to every concert, “leaving on a jet plane” made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary. Wilbur, you were a special talent, friend and Priest…and you have now boarded that plane for eternal glory. God bless your family. Ken Young aka “chick”

  5. Father Thomas touched my heart and my faith with his Holy Presence and his beautiful homilies. .
    May he rest in God’s Peace 🕊️ and Love 💟

  6. My friend, Father Thomas, may you lead the angels in heaven in song with your heavenly voice.
    I will miss you till I meet you again.
    We came to the Basilica one Sunday for the 9 o’clock Mass. The very first person we met at the door was a beloved lady, and soon to be a wonderful friend, Majorie Maxwell. When the Mass began. I saw this fine looking Priest and heard his beautiful voice bellowing under the beautiful dome.
    After that Mass about 17 years ago we met Father Thomas. I was so taken, that I came back to the Noon Mass, and heard and met my long time friend Father Boyd!
    For several Sundays after that I attended both morning Masses to, I think, the amazement of Fathers Thomas & Boyd.
    Soon after we became Roman Catholic & Parishioners of the Basilica!! It was life changing. I became a Eucharistic Minister, Hospital Minister, & proudly served at the Lord’s Alter with Fathers Thomas & Boyd. Probably the highest honor of my lifetime.
    Father Thomas, thank you and I love you.
    May you Rest in Peace at the Throne of our Lord – it’s the place of Honor that’s been waiting for you.
    God Bless you, Father. I will forever miss you. Father Thomas, as I have told you, you are the reason I became Catholic.
    Keep leading the angels in song.
    Sandy

  7. Fr. Thomas, you will be so missed. For the wise counsel you gave us, the beautiful liturgies over which you presided, for being the face of Christ, we thank you. May you rest in blessed peace, dear friend and pastor.

  8. The seminarians, faculty , staff, and the administration of the Pontifical College Josephinum, Columbus, Ohio, send their love, prayers, and deepest sympathies to Father Thomas’s parishioners, friends, Brother Priests, and loved ones during this time of loss. Our seminary is very proud of Father Thomas’s accomplishments and his many “firsts.” What an extraordinary ministry he lived out from that very first calling to the Holy Priesthood while spending time with our Lord at Eucharistic Adoration! Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he Rest In Peace. Amen.

  9. Father Thomas was a cherished spiritual adviser of mine. He was always available when I wanted to talk and his advice, love and understanding always led to the results intended by God, I’m sure. He is now with the good Lord for whom he served so well when on this earth. Sad as it is for us, Father is now where he devoted his life to ultimately be. I love him!

  10. Fr. Thomas was a devout, well-spoken, reverent Priest. His homilies were well thought out. His devotion to Christ evident throughout the celebration of the Mass. He was a friend, had an excellent laugh, could sing. He always made me feel like I was in the presence of God’s light. His absence from the Basilica was felt immediately by myself and many more. He has been missed for years. I know he is in Heaven singing and smiling. Grateful am I to have known him. 🙏🙏🙏💞

  11. Father Thomas,
    Thank you, you have given so much to so many. May you enjoy retirement:) I send all my hopes and prayers for the peace you have earned. May we meet again💕


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