Since 2004, retired Lieutenant General Arthur Gregg, the first African American in the United States Army to be named a three-star general, has blended unassumingly into the congregation, worshipping from the pews with his fellow parishioners at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Triangle, Virginia. His close friends and some long-time parishioners are aware of the 95-year-old’s impressive background. But at the 9:30 Mass on a recent Sunday morning, John O’Connor, OFM, pastor, acknowledged Lt. Gen. Gregg because he wanted everyone to know about the honor bestowed on the person who has been sitting among them for 19 years.
The U.S Army’s Fort Lee in Virginia, named after the Confederate Civil War general, was redesignated as Fort Gregg-Adams after Lt. Gen. Gregg and another black officer – the late Lieutenant Colonel Charity Adams, the highest-ranking Black woman of World War II – both of whose struggles with race and gender discrimination had an impact on the military becoming more inclusive. Ironically, the base where Lt. Gen. Gregg was denied entry to the officer’s club because of the color of his skin, now bears his name.
When John made the announcement and sang the praises of the special parishioner for his outstanding military service, the congregation erupted into applause for Lt. Gen. Gregg, whom the pastor described as “a man of deep faith, a genuine gentleman,” and a person who has led an exemplary life.
“We know him as the humble man who sits among us in the same pew every Sunday, participating in the Eucharist. But as you look deeper into his life story, you see someone who went from experiencing terrible racism as a Black man in the Armed Forces in the post-World War era, to this beautiful moment that forever will honor his brilliant and many years of service to our nation,” said John, who had the opportunity to get to know Lt. Gen. Gregg at a small dinner party held in his honor.
“The renaming of this major military base speaks volumes to what Lt. Gen. Gregg has meant to the U.S. Army and our country. He is the only living person in modern times to have a military installation named after him. It was an honor and privilege to introduce him to the congregation at the Mass,” said John.
Asked to comment on being a 19-year parishioner of the Triangle parish, and his thoughts about the pastoral care provided by the friars, Lt. Gen. Gregg responded by email.
“I like St. Francis because it is a well-organized and managed church that supports my spiritual needs. I became a member of the [parish] when I moved from Springfield to Four Seasons. I was well received by [parishioners] and have made many friends. Most Sundays, I attend church with two close friends and we sit with an expanded group of friends,” said Lt. Gen. Gregg.
“I look forward to Sunday service for social and spiritual reasons. Fr. John provides very good spiritual and caring leadership that allows me to feel comfortable being a member of St. Francis,” he added.
Sam and Mary Mahler, who worship at the parish and attended the base’s redesignation ceremony with their close friend, had this to say about Lt. Gen. Gregg. “It was a special honor for us to witness this history-making event. We were so thankful that Arthur invited us to attend. We can only imagine his thoughts and feelings about this honor,” the couple said.
Lt. Gen. Gregg enlisted in 1946, two years before U.S. President Harry Truman signed an executive order to desegregate the military. He made the Army his career by reenlisting. It was 1950, as 2nd Lt. at Fort Lee, when he was refused entry into the officer’s club. He rose through the officer ranks over the next two decades while stationed in South Korea, Japan and Germany. After returning to the States, he graduated summa cum laude with a business degree from Benedictine College in Kansas. Before his retirement in 1981, he served as director for logistics for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.
“He’s a wonderful man respected by everyone who knows him,” said John.