Monsignor 'cared for everybody'
From the numerous community groups he worked with to heading Detroit's Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, Monsignor James Robinson demonstrated a loving kindness that awed others.
"He was a man who cared for everybody," said Beverly LeMons, a longtime church member. "People gravitated towards him."
Monsignor Robinson died Friday, Jan 9, 2015. He was 83.
Born May 17, 1931, he grew up in Selma, Alabama, where the Society of St. Edmund established a mission. Inspired by the religious order's charitable work and compassion, he became involved and was ordained a priest in 1957.
He later worked as a pastor and mission apostolate in North Carolina; a teacher in New York; a seminary superior in Vermont; and the assistant director of his hometown mission before joining the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1976.
Assignments included St. Catherine/St. Edward, St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. John Berchman/St. Juliana, relatives and associates said.
In 1983, Monsignor Robinson was named rector at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament — the first African-American to hold that position, church officials said.
There, he oversaw the property's expansion, upgrading and renovation, said Monsignor Michael LeFevre, the current rector. "Jim wanted this to be a jewel," he said.
Monsignor Robinson readied the church in time for a visit from Pope John Paul II in 1987. "It was fantastic," said his niece, Rosalynne Atterbeary, whose children also attended.
While heading the church, Monsignor Robinson served many groups, including the Detroit Cable Communications Commission, appointed by Mayor Coleman Young, relatives and associates said.
He also was committed to many causes, including improving race relations in his hometown and elsewhere, said his sister, Bennie Ragland.
In the 1960s, he worked to desegregate some North Carolina public schools, according to the Society of St. Edmund. The next decade, while serving in Selma, he helped organized a procession commemorating the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama; and persuaded white councilmen to elect members by district, which led to five blacks being elected, relatives and associates said. The monsignor also helped sparring groups resolve their differences, thus releasing funds for new buildings, and worked with the then-mayor to push for urban renewal, his sister said.
"He's a peacemaker," Ragland said, adding honors included Selma leaders hanging his picture in a city center. "He knew how to work with all people."
A founding member of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, Monsignor Robinson also was elected to fill a vacancy in the Pontifical North American College in Rome and served on the board of trustees at Madonna University, associates said.
Monsignor Robinson retired from his church in 2003 and was named rector emeritus.
When not serving, he loved celebrating holidays with his relatives and watching sports. "He lived and died for Notre Dame," LeFevre said.
Even in his last days, he remained dedicated to serving others. "He was a powerful priest and mentor and presence in this city that's going to be sorely missed," said Donna Tschirhart, a pastoral associate.
Other survivors include another sister, Gloria Middleton, and many nieces and nephews.
A funeral Mass is 11 a.m. Saturday, at Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, 9844 Woodward, Detroit. He lies in repose at 10 a.m.
Interment is set for a later date in Selma, Alabama.