7 Extraordinary Black Catholics
This month we remember that Black history is an essential part of the fiber of American history; and Black Catholic History is also an essential thread woven into the richness of our Catholic history that should not be forgotten or overlooked. The story of Black Catholics is bound up with much suffering, struggle, difficulty, and hardship; yet it is a story of endurance, deep faith, hope, and courage. Throughout this month we celebrate the enduring courage and faith exemplified in people such as the following seven men and women, six of whom are being considered for canonization:
Venerable Fr. Augustus Tolton
Venerable Fr. Augustus Tolton, born in Missouri to enslaved parents, escaped as a child with his mother and sister to freedom in Illinois. Despite being rejected by every seminary in the U.S, he persevered and eventually attended seminary in Rome where he learned many European and African languages. He was sent back to the U.S. to evangelize within the Black community. His first assignment in Quincy, Illinois bore a very fruitful ministry, which made neighboring pastors feel that their own ministries were being undermined; attendance in their parishes was shrinking while attendance in Fr. Tolton’s parish grew. In time he was transferred to Chicago where he ministered to Black Catholics, built two parishes, and travelled widely, preaching and teaching the Gospel until his death.
Venerable Henriette Delille
Venerable Henriette Delille, a free woman of color born in New Orleans, felt a deep desire to draw closer to Christ and learn more about her faith from an early age. This put her at odds with her family. In her twenties, she founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, whose mission was to evangelize slaves and free people of color. They educated enslaved children and adults when it was against the law to do so. They cared for the sick, the poor, the elderly, and the orphaned.
Venerable Pierre Toussaint
Venerable Pierre Toussaint arrived in New York from S. Domingue (now Haiti) as a slave. In time, he bought his freedom and became a well-known philanthropist. He and his wife Juliette opened their home to those less fortunate than themselves, helped people find employment, cared for orphaned children, and assisted in raising funds to build Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Servant of God Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange
Servant of God Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, a Haitian refugee who settled in Baltimore with the encouragement of a local priest, founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious order of women of African descent.
Servant of God Julia Greeley
Julia Greeley was known for her extensive evangelization efforts and would deliver coal and groceries to poor white families in the Denver area at night so they would not be uncomfortable accepting assistance from a Black woman.
Sr. Thea Bowman
Sr. Thea Bowman, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, was an educator who advocated for recognition of the distinct worship style of Black Catholics as valid, even though many viewed it as invalid and inauthentic.
Bishop James Augustine Healy
Bishop James Augustine Healy, the second ordinary of the Diocese of Portland, ME, attended seminary in Montreal and Paris because it would have been dangerous for him to attend seminary in the U.S. Ordained a priest for the Diocese of Boston, he advocated for Catholic institutions during a time when Catholics were viewed with much suspicion and intolerance. As the bishop of Portland, he directed the establishment of schools, missions and parishes to serve immigrants and Native Americans. He was a member of the Commission for Negro and Indian Missions and a consultant to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Today, every November, the Bishop Healy Award named in his honor is presented to a Black Catholic who is an example of exceptional, faith-filled leadership.
Such extraordinary, faithful Black Catholics inspire every Catholic to be courageous, persevere in the face of adversity, and be witnesses of deeply unwavering faith in God.