DENVER — While many Americans will remember that February is Black History Month due to notifications on social media and documentaries on the History Channel, some aspects of the African American story often go unnoticed, including the often remarkable stories of Black Catholics in America.
Since 1976, every U.S. president has designated February as a special celebration of African Americans in the past and present. This year’s theme is “African Americans in Times of War,” to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I and to commemorate the role of African Americans in American wars from the Revolutionary War to present day conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Catholic Church in the U.S., however, has its own significant events to celebrate where African Americans are concerned. Both Black laity and clergy can point to examples of people and events that were deeply meaningful in their day, and remain so now.
The National Black Catholic Congress offers a timeline of U.S. Black Catholic history on its website, beginning with the 1565 founding of St. Augustine, Florida, built with the labor of both free and enslaved blacks. A key moment came in 1693, when Florida, still under Spanish rule, offered freedom to all those who converted to Catholicism.
Among the many events the NBCC highlights, one in 1889 stands out.
Daniel Rudd, a lay Black Catholic who was “fiercely proud of the Catholic Church,” and believing that the Church is a place of hope for Black people, went about recruiting delegates to the first Black Catholic Congress. A statement issued by that assembly calls “for Catholic schools for black children, endorses temperance, appeals to labor unions to admit blacks, advocates better housing, and praises religious orders for aiding blacks.”
In initiating the event, Rudd started something that continues to this day. Today’s National Black Catholic Congress recently released a pastoral plan, addressing issues for a general Catholic audience as well as issues especially affecting African Americans.
Rudd also assisted in the organization of the first general lay Catholic congress in the U.S. in 1889, and was clear that “blacks be treated as part of the whole, not as a special category.”
Father Bryan Massingale, professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University in an earlier interview with Crux about the NBCC’s pastoral plan, recognized and praised “the consistent project of the Black Catholic Congresses since their beginning in the late nineteenth century, to draw a connection between the experiences of Black people and the beliefs of the Catholic Church.”
Continuing in that vein, one of the points made at the recent pastoral plan meeting that most seemed to excite Father Stephen Thorne, the pastor at Saint Martin de Porres Church in Philadelphia and someone involved with the compilation of the plan, was the objective to “create more opportunities to increase awareness of Black Saints in the life of the Church.”
Thorne says that this was definitely one of the things that came from the delegates excited about taking action. “They’re concerned that we need to have an African-American saint in the Church,” he said.
Having these saints could help grow Church leadership, evangelize the community and be a beacon to young Black Catholics who don’t have that much interest in the Church now.
To date there is no African American saint, although several causes are underway, including Pierre Toussaint and Henriette Delille, both of whom are now “venerable.”
Haitian-born Pierre Toussaint arrived in the country in the 18th century. After Toussaint’s arrival in New York in 1787 he was apprenticed to a hairdresser and was soon doing hair for many wealthy women in the city. During this time, he remained a slave and when his owner died leaving his widow penniless, Toussaint supported her financially and emotionally. She, in turn, granted him freedom in 1807.
Toussaint went on to buy the freedom of family members as well as to give generously to charitable organizations including a school and orphanage for black children, and received wide tributes: “He cares for the ill when yellow fever sweeps the city and opens his home to homeless youth.”
Another less known person currently on the path to sainthood is Julia Greeley who was born into slavery, lived a life of poverty, and is now the first person to be interred at the cathedral in her adopted city of Denver, Colorado.
The process of becoming a saint in the Catholic Church is notoriously difficult, and also long – it sometimes can take centuries, despite reforms under St. John Paul II intended to speed things up. In Denver, the Julia Greeley Guild, is doing what it can to keep her memory alive.
Denver’s Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila has petitioned to open a cause, so Greeley is now recognized in Rome as a “Servant of God.” Waldery Hilgeman, an official Roman postulator, has been hired by the Archdiocese of Denver to advise, and will later direct things in Rome. Aquila appointed a historical commission to collect information on Greeley’s spiritual life and virtues, devotion to her, as well as her reputation as an intercessor.
Every year, Black History Month offers a reminder how much the present is interconnected with the past. Over the past several months, for instance, the American Catholic hierarchy has fought to preserve Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for people from several countries, including Haiti – a place that’s left a deep imprint on the American Catholic experience.
In 1829, several women living in Baltimore, all Haitian refugees, took the initiative to educate children at home. The archbishop supported them in their efforts to start the Oblate Sisters of Providence, with the first superior being Elizabeth Lange, born in Cuba of Haitian parents.
During the same century, Maryland became home to many Black Catholics as a result of this kind of work, as well as various evangelization efforts. Once again, 2017 brought a reminder of that past with a spate of controversial statue removals of figures associated with slavery.
One such removal was that of a statue of Robert B. Taney, the country’s first Catholic Supreme Court justice, from the Maryland state house because he authored the Dred Scott decision.
The NBCC timeline doesn’t touch on every important person or event in African American Catholic history, which would clearly be impossible. For instance, it mentions that in 1875, James Augustine Healy was the first African American priest to be named as a bishop, but it does not list the first (and to-date only) African American president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta (who, at the time, led the Diocese of Belleville, Ill.)
1958 saw the first official denunciation from the U.S. bishops of racial prejudice as immoral, and last year – some sixty years after that first declaration — the USCCB created an ad-hoc Committee Against Racism following a violent demonstration involving white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
There were other key moments Thorne listed for Crux, such as various publications of the “Lead Me, Guide Me Hymnal” and the “Black Catholic Youth Bible.” Both Thorne and the NBCC have the publication of “The History of Black Catholics in the United States” by Father Cyprian Davis on their lists. It was published in 1990 with a new edition released in 2016.
Thorne also points to things like the establishment at Xavier University of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies, and an address and audience black Catholics had with Pope John Paul II in 1987.
For Thorne, while some National Black Catholic Congress meetings have had deep historical significance, all “have had great impact on me as a Catholic and a priest.”
“The NBCC is about strengthening our faith and leads to social justice,” he said.” Also, Black Catholics were the first to convene such a gathering, which shows the deep roots of the Catholic Church in our history.”