Father Guthrie Was Beloved Catholic Activist, Historian

By Wayne Risher
Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)
April 9, 2002

Rev. Milton J. Guthrie, 70, who died Saturday of heart failure, will be remembered as a crusader for social justice, a walking encyclopedia of Catholicism in West Tennessee and a priest who found joy in his work.

His ministry spanned 45 years and ranged from inner-city outreach to civil rights activism to work with youth, Catholic schools and prison inmates. He served a combined 24 years as pastor at Holy Rosary, Holy Names and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic churches.

Rev. Guthrie, who retired in 1998 only to return to Holy Names in North Memphis as sacramental minister, died at his home on Sardis Lake near Oxford, Miss.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Burial will be at Priest Mound in Calvary Cemetery. Canale Funeral Directors has charge.

A native Memphian, Rev. Guthrie grew up in the St. Therese-Little Flower parish in North Memphis. He is survived by three sisters, Mary Ellen Evers of Memphis, Sister Mary Anne Guthrie of St. Catherine, Ky., and Arline G. Fogos of Pensacola, Fla.

After Christian Brothers High School, St. Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa, and St. Bernard Seminary in Cullman, Ala., he was ordained in 1957. Rev. Guthrie served just over two months in Nashville before coming home as assistant pastor at St. Michael.

He later served St. Joseph, Nativity, Blessed Sacrament, St. Louis and St. Anne parishes, at the St. Anthony Center and in a variety of diocesan positions.

He was chaplain for the Shelby County Penal Farm and taught or served as chaplain at Catholic High, St. Agnes Academy, Christian Brothers High and Bishop Byrne High.

Among his accolades were the Msgr. Paul W. Clunan Award and the Bishop Carrol T. Dozier Award.

His longest assignment was at Holy Rosary from 1977 to 1992. During a sabbatical in 1988, he collaborated on Between the Rivers, a history of the Catholic church in West Tennessee.

Bishop Terry Steib of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis said the diocese "has lost a great and dedicated priest. I will always remember Father Guthrie as the great historian of the diocese. His knowledge of dates and events was amazing and helpful."

Father William Burke, pastor of St. William Catholic Church in Millington, was an associate under Guthrie for five years at Holy Rosary, where the family life center was named for Guthrie in 1993.

"He was very beloved by the people, he was easy to get along with, and he was very even-tempered," said Burke. "He was particularly caring and loving to the downtrodden."

Rev. Guthrie achieved prominence for his efforts during the civil rights movement. He told an interviewer in 1998 that he was influenced to enter the ministry by a desire to work against racial injustice.

He was proud of spending Christmas 1969 in jail after he and other organizers were indicted for their roles in a demonstration in which black parents kept children out of school to protest all-white school board leadership.

He got his first assignment as pastor at Holy Names of Jesus and Mary at 697 Keel in 1971. He helped start programs pushing for better housing, child care and social services. He shared his living quarters in the church rectory with poor families. At one time as many as 32 people lived with him.

"No matter who they were or what they were, my brother never turned away anyone," said his sister, Mary Ellen Evers.

Father Robert Ponticello, pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Bartlett and the diocese's liaison with senior priests, said when Guthrie returned to Holy Names in retirement, he reconnected with people who were children when he was in the neighborhood in the 1970s.

"I don't think he knew a stranger, and to me I think he embodied the best of priesthood in his willingness to be of service to others," said Ponticello.

Bonnie Collins, president of the North Memphis Civic Club, said the neighborhood had lost an advocate. "We're going to miss his input and his involvement in the North Memphis community. He was a delightful person to work with."

Rev. Guthrie celebrated his last mass at Holy Names on Easter morning.

He was doing what he loved, his sister said. "He always celebrated the mass at his place at Sardis for himself or anyone else who was there," said Evers.

The family asked that memorial contributions be made to St. Peter Manor, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital or a charity of the donor's choice.


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