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What our Black saints can teach us this Black Catholic History Month

Darcel Whitten-Wilamowski directs the Sister Thea Bowman, Servant of God, Mass Gospel Choir during a Black History Month Mass of thanksgiving on Feb. 16 at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston, New York. Sister Bowman (1937-1990), a noted evangelist and member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, is among the U.S. Black Catholic sainthood candidates who receive special recognition during National Black Catholic History Month, observed every November. CNS PHOTO/GREGORY A. SHEMITZ

by Marc and Julie Anderson

He was born a slave.

Not one seminary in the United States would accept him. He had to study for the priesthood in Italy.

But he died a priest and might someday be canonized.

The story of Father Augustus Tolton was just one of many stories shared by archdiocesan Catholics ahead of Black Catholic History Month, which began Nov. 1.

Established in 1990, this special month was the idea of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus to recognize the contributions people of color have made to the Catholic Church. The first celebration commemorated the 350th anniversary of the death of St. Martin de Porres, patron saint of those of mixed races and those suffering from discrimination.

Canonized in 1962, St. Martin was born in 1579 in Lima, Peru, to a Spanish father and a mother who was a freed slave of African or Native American descent. At 15, he longed to join a religious order; however, Peruvian law forbade people of mixed race to do so.

In order to join the Dominicans of the Holy Rosary Priory in Lima, St. Martin had to become a servant, accepting menial tasks such as sweeping the floor.

Eventually, he was allowed to become a Dominican lay brother and was later assigned to the infirmary. He became well-known for his care of the sick and the dying as well as his unconditional love of all, regardless of race or wealth.

This statue of St. Martin de Porres, patron saint of those of mixed races and those suffering from discrimination, appears to stand watch at the entrance of St. Augustine Church in Washington.

According to the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, three other November dates are significant. All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day provide an opportunity to review the lives of hundreds of saints of African descent in the first 300 years of the church and a time to remember all those Africans lost to cruel treatment in the Middle Passage crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

St. Augustine’s birthday, Nov. 13, provides a chance to honor the first doctor of the church from North Africa.

For Peggy Robinson, a parishioner at Our Lady & St. Rose in Kansas City, Kansas, the saints, including Black saints, provide her strength.

“These people overcame such obstacles so that they could have a seat in the Catholic Church, and that gives me faith and hope,” she said. “So, whenever I get discouraged about racial justice in the church and otherwise, I think of them and — if they could do it — then I need to carry forward.”

National Black History Month might not have happened except for one man.

In the l880s, Daniel Rudd founded the Ohio Star Tribune, which later became the American Catholic Tribune, the first national Catholic newspaper owned and operated by a Black man.

In May 1888, Rudd used one of his columns to call for a Black Catholic Congress to gather Black Catholics “and let them exchange views on questions affecting their race; then uniting on a course of action, behind which would stand the majestic Church of Christ, they must inevitably become — what has already been said they should be — the bearer of their race.”

In January 1889, President Grover Cleveland received 100 Black Catholic men at the White House as part of the first National Black Catholic Congress, a tradition which continues today. Father Tolton celebrated the opening Mass.

At that first congress, Father Tolton said, “The Catholic Church deplores a double slavery — that of the mind and that of the body. She endeavors to free us of both. I was a poor slave boy, but the priests of the Church did not disdain me. . . . In this Church we do not have to fight for our rights because we are black. She had colored saints — Saint Augustine, Saint Benedict the Moor, Saint Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine. The Church is broad and liberal. She is the Church for our people.”

This stained-glass window depicting St. Augustine and his mother St. Monica graces the wall of St. Augustine Church in Washington. St. Augustine is the first doctor of the church from North Africa.

Celebrating such a Mass was probably something Father Tolton never dreamed of doing, especially since no American seminary would accept him. In 2019, Pope Francis declared Father Augustus Tolton to be Venerable, meaning he is worthy of private devotion and nearing canonization.

Born in Missouri to slave parents, Father Tolton started life roughly 200 miles from Kansas City.

“He was here in Missouri. He was close,” explained Barbara Bailey, Our Lady & St. Rose pastoral associate. “They really didn’t want him to be a priest. He just had the patience and the fortitude to hang in there.”

His life inspires her to “continue to have patience with people and to know that God is in control. If something is supposed to happen, God will make it happen.”

One hundred years after that first congress, Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA, who is also moving toward sainthood, became the first African American woman to address the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Suffering with cancer while sitting in a wheelchair, she said, “What does it mean to be Black and Catholic? It means that I come to my church fully functioning. . . . I bring myself, my Black self, all that I am, all that I have, all I hope to become.”

“I bring my whole history,” she continued, “my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as a gift to the Church.”

While Sister Thea is not her patron, Frances Smith, another parishioner at Our Lady & St. Rose, said she has prayed for Sister Thea’s intercession in the past because she, too, suffered from cancer. She finds Sister Thea’s concern for others more impressive, though.

Linda Kay Bailey, conductor at Our Lady & St. Rose in Kansas City, Kansas, leads the choir. LEAVEN FILE PHOTO

“In times of racial strife, she sought peace and reconciliation,” Smith said, adding she tries to emulate her example by praying for everyone she encounters.

“I think that’s what really blesses us is when we pray for one another,” said Smith.

Bailey, who met Sister Thea, said the nun’s presence was powerful.

“She was that type of magnetic personality that would just grab you. It was just like you couldn’t let go. You just couldn’t,” she recalled. “She was always joyful. I never saw her down. . . . She knew no strangers. She was just very open. That was that community she wanted to share with everyone. It’s like what we are trying to do at Our Lady & St. Rose.”

Taking care of each other in a community was also important to Pierre Toussaint, declared Venerable in 1996 by St. John Paul II.

Born into slavery in 1766, he was brought to New York City in 1787 and apprenticed to one of the most well-known hair stylists by his owners, the Bérards. On her deathbed, Madame Bérard granted him his freedom.

Because he served as a hairdresser to New York’s upper class, Toussaint was able to purchase the freedom of other family members. Additionally, he became one of the major benefactors of charities throughout the city, causing some to call him the father of Catholic Charities.

Sister Therese Bangert, SCL, particularly admires Toussaint. She has spent much of her religious life working on social justice issues.

“My prayer to him would be that we would be generous in our care of each other — not just giving our old things or our extra time. But his generosity was amazing, and I loved it that he was a hairdresser,” she said. “Hair is a very important thing, I’ve learned, in the Black community.”

Sister Therese said she thinks Toussaint should be remembered for his generosity, a virtue she has witnessed countless times at Our Lady & St. Rose.

“People don’t necessarily have big salaries, but they share with each other and with the church,” she said. “I’ve been very aware of that.”

Bea Swoopes, holding the mic, is a longtime member of the gospel choir of Our Lady & St. Rose. LEAVEN FILE PHOTO

And the sharing has meant the world to Beatrice Swoopes, another parishioner.

“We come to our faith from a different perspective, a perspective of long-term suffering which makes the social issues — those of poverty, racism, criminal justice, education equality, health care — more of day-to-day issues that concern us,” she said. “From my point of view, we see ourselves more of a family striving and caring for each other.”

Franchiel Nyakatura, yet another parishioner, said she cherishes the rich diversity of her Catholic Church family and all its saints, regardless of their ethnicity. One she admires is St. Peter Claver.

While not of African-American descent, St. Peter Claver enjoys a large following among Black Catholics due to his ministry among the slaves in modern-day Colombia. His service included bringing food, administering the sacraments, and caring for the sick and dying.

Nyakatura said service is at the core of Christianity.

“Anyone who studies his life can see that it is our responsibility as Catholic Christian people to see the need of another human being, regardless of their race, to see that need and to attend to that person as an ambassador of Christ,” she said. “And that’s what Peter Claver did.”

 “All of our patron saints,” she continued, “regardless of their race, are there to give us these beautiful examples of how to help another human being.”

Parishioner Marilyn Baker agreed.

“We should be living our lives in a way which will increase the saintliness of even ourselves and those sitting next to us in the pews,” she said. “We’re all called to be saints, and I’m just grateful to the church that we have those holy men and women which we can follow. And I pray that I, too, can be an example of that.”

Eleven-year-old Diomi Johnson- Hamilton, also a parishioner, said that it is Jesus Christ who ultimately draws everyone in love. But just as Jesus drew people together, so, too, do the saints.

And their examples instruct us.

“What happened in the past makes us better in the future,” she said.

Black Catholic Americans in consideration for sainthood

Six Black Catholic Americans are being considered for sainthood. Their official canonization websites are listed below. Catholics can access them to learn more about these individuals and/or to report favors received through their intercession.

Mother Mary Lange
Lange Guild
701 Gun Road
Baltimore, MD 21227
(410) 242-6861

For further reading:
“The Finger of God: A Story of Courage” by Sharon Knecht

Father Augustus Tolton
Archdiocese of Chicago
Attention: Bishop Joseph N. Perry
835 N. Rush Street
Chicago, IL  60611
(312) 534-8376

For further reading:
“From Slave to Priest” by Caroline Hemesath or “Father Augustus Tolton” by Deacon Harold Burke-Sievers

Julia Greeley
Julia Greeley Guild
1663 Steele Street, Apt. 707
Denver, CO  80206

For further reading:
“In Service of the Sacred Heart: The Life and Virtues of Julia Greeley” by Father Blaine Burkey, OFM Cap.

Mother Henriette Delille
Henriette Delille Commission Office
Sisters of the Holy Family
6901 Chef Menteur Blvd.
New Orleans, LA 70126-5215
(504) 241-3088

For further reading:
“Henriette Delille: Servant of Slaves, Witness to the Poor” by Father Cyprian Davis, OSB

Pierre Toussaint
Venerable Pierre Toussaint Guild
Archdiocese of New York
1011 First Avenue
New York, NY 10022
(646) 794-2681

For further reading:
“Pierre Toussaint” by Arthur Jones

Sister Thea Bowman
Sister Thea Bowman Canonization Cause
Diocese of Jackson
237 E. Amite Street
Jackson, MS  39225

For further reading:
“This Little Light: Lessons in Living” from Sister Thea Bowman by Brother Michael O’Neill McGrath and “Thea Bowman: In My Own Words” by Maurice J. Nutt, CSSR.

About the author

Marc & Julie Anderson

Freelancers Marc and Julie Anderson are long-time contributors to the Leaven. Married in 1996, for several years the high school sweethearts edited The Crown, the former newspaper of Christ the King Parish in Topeka which Julie has attended since its founding in 1977. In 2000, the Leaven offered the couple their first assignment. Since then, the Andersons’ work has also been featured in a variety of other Catholic and prolife media outlets. The couple has received numerous journalism awards from the Knights of Columbus, National Right to Life and the Catholic Press Association including three for their work on “Think It’s Not Happening Near You? Think Again,” a piece about human trafficking. A lifelong Catholic, Julie graduated from Most Pure Heart of Mary Grade School and Hayden Catholic High School in Topeka. Marc was received into the Catholic Church in 1993 at St. Paul Parish – Newman Center at Wichita State University. The two hold degrees from Washburn University in Topeka. Their only son, William James, was stillborn in 1997.

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  • Wow – Amazing amount of research in this article! I would never have known this inspiring history of black Catholic servants of God.

  • I really enjoyed all the information I will pass it on to other black Catholics and others our whole country needs to know about these wonderful Catholics that dedicated their lives to helping people , raising people up, all people especially Black people.
    Thank you for this information God bless us all