When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died in 1968, Father Patrick Delahanty was a young seminarian. He and his fellow future priests stood atop their seminary in Baltimore that April and watched as the city burned.
Riots had broken out in cities around the country after the nonviolent leader of the civil rights movement perished.
He and his fellow seminarians went out into the streets to an impoverished black neighborhood — they had a job to do. The late Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, Archbishop of Baltimore at the time, gave the young men $5,000 to buy groceries, which they delivered to a parish.
“We delivered the food to a parish in the heart of the black community so they would have food to eat” as a curfew went into effect and rioting continued, Father Delahanty explained during an interview Monday. “There were soldiers on all the corners. Overnight, (the neighborhood) became a military camp.”
That experience and others in his seminary introduced Father Delahanty to the complexities of racial injustice, he said. And they formed him for a priesthood rooted in justice-seeking for the last 50 or so years.
On Sept. 21, his life’s work was honored by the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights. The government body inducted Father Delahanty and 18 others — including the late Muhammad Ali — into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame. The ceremony was held at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage.
Father Delahanty, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, joins the late Monsignor Alfred Horrigan, also a priest of the archdiocese, and his aunt and uncle, Robert and Dolores Delahanty, in the Hall of Fame.
Father Delahanty has served for the last five decades to preserve and promote the civil and human rights of people who are vulnerable. He retired from active ministry in 2013, but he continues to serve as the chair of the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, which he co-founded with several others in 1988.
Asked why he focused on this kind of work, he said that in each step of his ministry, “Someone was being treated unjustly. Or someone needed assistance and someone was trying to block that for no substantive reason.”
So, he took action.
His service began at seminary when a neighborhood priest was seeking to open a halfway house for former prisoners. A few vocal residents opposed the house, so Father Delahanty and other seminarians fanned out into the surrounding neighborhood with petitions and a mission to explain the plans to residents. Their work paid off and the plan succeeded.
“That was a taste” of what was to come, he said.
That experience led him to Louisville’s West End, where four priests were working collaboratively with African American Catholics. He asked to join them for a summer assignment when he was ordained a deacon.
“They were all committed to Vatican II reforms and serving people living in poor neighborhoods who had been discriminated against for years,” he said, noting that he helped operate a summer camp that summer offering art, dance, reading and tutoring programs.
After he was ordained, Father Delahanty went back to that area of Jefferson County and began advocating for systemic change on behalf of the poor.
He worked with Monsignor Horrigan and others on the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Peace and Justice Commission to bring low-income housing to different parts of town. And he led the commission’s effort in the early 1970s to ensure that Catholic schools did not become a haven for those fleeing court-ordered integration.
He became interested in abolishing the death penalty through his concern for racial justice. He recalls being asked to testify before a judge about the church’s position on the death penalty. And then found himself, almost by happenstance, deeply involved in a high-profile trial that showed him problems with the justice system, he noted.
Lindsey Scott, a Marine Corps corporal from Louisville, was convicted in 1983 of sexual assault and attempted murder. His mother, who wanted a retrial on grounds that his attorney failed to adequately defend her son, began asking for $20 at local churches for his defense. Father Delahanty received one of her pleas. After reading newspaper clippings she provided from coverage of the trial in Quantico, Va., he was convinced Scott, who is black, deserved a retrial. He worked with other advocates of Scott’s to raise funds for his defense and Scott was acquitted at his second trial in 1987.
The experience introduced the priest intimately to the problems with the American legal system and the role race can play, Father Delahanty said. It also taught him something about working for justice.
“Nobody does this stuff by themselves,” he said, noting that Protestant and Catholic churches and other people worked together on Scott’s behalf.
In 1988 he was among a small group of people who formed the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, which he currently leads.
Father Delahanty also began volunteering as an aid to state senators — the late Sen. Danny Meyer and Sen. Gerald Neal — on issues related to the death penalty and racial justice. He counts two victories from that period — the passage of a bill to abolish the death penalty for people who are mentally disabled in 1990 and the passage of the Racial Justice Act in 1998, which relates to racial bias in sentencing.
He also began working at Catholic Charities of Louisville in 1988, where he led the Migration and Refugee Services program until 2000. In that role, Father Delahanty aided thousands of refugees seeking safety and security in the United States.
In 2003, Father Delahanty became the deputy director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, the public policy arm of Kentucky’s four bishops. The conference works with lawmakers to promote the church’s position on legislative matters. He became executive director of the conference in 2011 and retired from that service in 2013.
During his time at the conference, he worked on bills related to human trafficking and saw legislation pass in 2007 that made it a felony in Kentucky. He also worked on and saw the passage of a bill related to fetal homicide — the law made it a homicide in Kentucky to kill an unborn child outside of abortion. He also worked to limit predatory lending practices and for the restoration of the voting rights of former felons.
While his time at the conference has ended, he continues to work in Frankfort to curb the death penalty.
“It’s disappointing we haven’t been able to cross the finish line with that,” he said. “But the good news is we have support from both parties now. It’s just a matter of time.”
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, who attended the induction event, said in a statement, “I have great admiration for Father Pat and so was thrilled when he was honored with this Kentucky-wide award for his passion and hard work for civil rights. It is an honor to the entire archdiocese that he is now numbered among the select few in the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame.
He noted that he worked with Father Delahanty through the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, where the priest provided “sterling service.”
“Father Pat has consistently sought to bring our church teachings on a just society to bear in policies and laws as well as in the human relationships that make for strong communities,” he said. “It was a joy to work with him and I was pleased to support him last week when he was inducted.”
Father Delahanty was nominated for the Hall of Fame by local attorney Oliver Barber. In his nomination letter, Barber noted that after working with Father Delahanty on a justice issue, he became a parishioner of his at St. Martin de Porres and St. Augustine churches — both in West Louisville. Father Delahanty served as sacramental moderator of the parishes from 2008 to 2013.
Former state Sen. David Karem, who wrote a letter in support of the nomination, wrote that the priest always worked for social justice with respect and good humor.
“To say that he labored tirelessly in the field for social justice would be an understatement,”Karem wrote. “If someone wanted verification that he deserved to be in the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame, I can tell you first hand that Sen. (Georgia) Powers was a great admirer of Father Pat. … Pat’s presence in the Hall of Fame is well-deserved.”