Community mourns passing of longtime pastor

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ROBERTSDALE — The Rev. Monsignor William Russell James, longtime pastor of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Robertsdale, was laid to rest Monday, June 10 in Elmwood Cemetery in his hometown of Birmingham. James died Thursday, June 6, just one day after his 90th birthday.

Locally, the Office for the Dead was held at St. Patrick’s on Friday, June 7 and funeral mass was held Saturday, June 8 at St. Patrick’s.

Pallbearers in Robertsdale were Kip Dye, Mike Van, Kasey Childress, Charles Pinkert, Greg Wittendorfer, and August Eltz Jr. Honorary pallbearers were St. Patrick’s Knights of Columbus. A Celebration of Life in the parish hall followed the Funeral Mass.

James’ last assignment was as pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in Robertsdale, from 1993-2011. After his retirement, he resided in the parish community and continued his priestly ministry when and where he was needed.

“I’ve been here for three years and I can say that Father James was well known in the community,” said Father Jim Morrison, current pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish. “He was known for being present in people’s lives and being God’s presence in times of need. As I would go around the community, I would all the time have people asking about Father James, asking how he was or asking if I knew him, then wanting to share stories of how he touched their lives.”

One thing he was well known for, Morrison said, is that he would mow people’s yards who could no longer do that themselves.

“In the last couple of weeks of his life I spoke with him he told me that he had lived a good life,” Morrison said, “and was ready to go on to the next life.”

He was preceded in death by a sister and brother-in-law Patricia James Thornton and William L. Thornton, Jr. of Birmingham; and a brother, Monsignor Robert Joseph James, a priest of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida.

Survivors include a brother, Dr. Thomas O’Conner James (Ann) of Birmingham; sister, Margaret James Borders (Ray) of Shelton, Connecticut; numerous cousins, nieces, nephews, grand nieces and nephews.

James is also survived by his steadfast partner through thick and thin for so many years, Sister Margaret Harte, the principal of St. Patrick’s School. Together, he and Harte carried out their honorable mission and forged a St. Patrick’s community that is salt of the earth.

“He will be truly missed by the faculty and staff of the school and by the community,” said Harte. “He was always engaged with what was going on at the school and whenever he would walk through the doors, everyone would flock to him.”

Harte described James as a lover of people “in the best sense” and a lover of nature, often going out to farms at night to watch the stars. He also started the “Blessing of the Pets” during the Feast of St. Francis.

“He always looked forward to that,” Harte said, “and would welcome all sorts of animals, from household pets to goats, horses and cows.”

Harte said one of James’s biggest gifts was that he truly cared about people.

“He talked to everyone and truly cared about their concerns and wanted to help them,” she said. “He was a great advocate for women and particularly watched out for single mothers and their children, but he also recognized the need for a father-figure in the home.”

James also had a great love and respect for veterans. “He was always grateful for their service,” she said.

After his retirement, James continued making daily trips to the Post Office, where he made many friends in the community outside the Catholic parish.

“He made so many friends that people who were not Catholic were coming to us wanting him to do their loved ones’ funerals,” she said.

James was a prolific writer. He once wrote “the thought of death is a happy thought for me. What an exciting time when Gabriel blows his heavenly trumpet … and we have that journey of all journeys, and happily, gather in heaven to experience forever the sight of God - the Beatific Vision. Forever, forever.”

In another writing, James wrote of welcoming death because of the excitement of “soaring past the stars through heaven” to see the true glory and scope of God’s universe.

James was born on June 5, 1929 in Birmingham. He was the second of five children born to Russell William James and Marian (Welsh) James. His early education was at St. Paul’s Catholic School in downtown Birmingham.

At of the time of his death, James was the longest serving priest in the Mobile Diocese.

At age 16, he began seminary training with the Benedictine Monks at St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman. His seminary studies continued at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Mobile on May 27, 1954 at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Birmingham.

While teaching at McGill Institute in Mobile, he completed his master’s degree in education from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He served as assistant superintendent of schools and Diocesan director of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine during the 1960s. He was associate pastor at Little Flower in Mobile and, while serving at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile, he received the title of Monsignor. He also served as pastor of St. Francis of Xavier in Mobile in the late 1960s.

After teaching at the City of St. Jude in Montgomery during the early 1970s, he became pastor and administrator of St. Jude from 1978-1989. The City of St. Jude, a multi-faceted community, was established in 1934 by Passionist Father Purcell. St. Jude’s goal was to serve young people, the area’s poor, and the severely handicapped with hope and dignity which James avidly pursued.

James also served as vicar for Religious and Family Life director for the Diocese of Mobile from 1965-1992. He was always involved in the Apostolate for the Deaf, having learned sign language during his seminary training. From 1989-1992, he was pastor of Mother Mary Parish in Phenix City.

James was aggressive in his involvement in the civil rights movement and his efforts toward social justice. He was on the site of and an immediate witness to the aftermath of the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four young girls. During the 1960s, he marched in many civil rights protests throughout the State and spent his nights in jail for having done so. He also marched with Cesar Chavez in California for the rights of Hispanic migrant workers in California.

His work continued as he traveled this country for many years leading hundreds of retreats for Catholic nuns, acknowledging and promoting the vital role the Sisters play in the Church. He was a man on a mission, many missions. During those travels, he stopped most days to watch the glory of God’s sunset, many times with camera in hand.

As he traveled, he also stayed in contact with his many cousins around the country. He loved and cherished the relationships of his large extended family.

The family thanked Morrison for his kindness and support. A special thanks to his niece, Mary Thornton Taylor, for oversight. But above all else, the family is particularly grateful to St. Patrick’s parish and its faithful community for their love, support and caregiving of James for these many years.

Arrangements in Robertsdale were made by Mack Funeral Home. Graveside services in Birmingham were under the direction of Ridout’s Valley Chapel in Homewood.

Information provided by Mack Funeral Home with additional reporting by Onlooker co-editor John Underwood.