Washington, Nov 13-(UPI) U.S. Roman Catholic bishops on Tuesday elected the Rev. Wilton D. Gregory of the nation's smallest U.S. diocese, as their new leader, the first African-America selected to head the group.

Gregory, 53, of Belleville, Ill., was elected to a three-year term as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which succeeded the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference July 1. He succeeds Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston. It was also the first time a convert to Catholicism has been elected to the position.

Gregory, who served as the group's vice president, was elevated to bishop at the age of 35, making him the youngest bishop in the Catholic church, just 10 years after he was ordained a priest. For 10 years he was an auxiliary bishop in Chicago under the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

He is described as humble and a hard-worker who enjoys a good joke by friends. "If you were standing there talking to him, you wouldn't know he was a bishop," Richard Mark, chief executive of St. Mary's Hospital in Belleville, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "He's very down to earth with everyone."

Gregory took over the troubled Belleville diocese seven years ago, leading Southern Illinois' 105,000 Catholics and meeting with the laity on a quarterly basis. Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis garnered the second highest number of votes on the 10-man presidential ballot. William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., was elected vice president.

The Catholic Church in the United States is estimated 78 percent white with African-Americans numbering 2 million to 3.5 million

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