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African-Americans and people across the United States observe the month of February as “Black History Month.”
Black Catholics have contributed greatly to that history, although they, as all African-Americans, suffered greatly as slaves and, later, from discrimination. Even some southern Catholic bishops and religious orders owned slaves at one time.
Many black slaves were Catholics. John Carroll, the first American Catholic bishop, who owned slaves, reported to Rome in 1785 that 20 percent of the Catholics in Maryland were black.
Several black American Catholics are among those being considered for possible canonization. I profiled them in my book Future American Saints?: Men and Women Whose Causes Are Being Considered. Although none have been beatified yet, two of them have been declared venerable, the step before beatification.
Venerable Pierre Toussaint
(1766-1853) was a slave in Haiti when his owner moved to New York. Toussaint became a hairdresser, the most popular in the city. He became a free man when his owner died in 1807.
He purchased the freedom of Juliette Noel, who became his wife. It was their work among the poor blacks and orphans, plus Pierre’s spiritual devotion, that put him on the road toward sainthood. He is buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, the only layman among cardinals and archbishops.
Venerable Henriette Delille
(1812-62) was the daughter of a white man and his free black mistress in New Orleans. After she grew up, she served those like her, people who were discriminated against because they were of mixed race. She eventually founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1842.
Servant of God Mother Mary Lange (1784-1882) preceded Delille. Born in Haiti, she immigrated to Baltimore to escape political unrest in Haiti. She was the first founder of a religious order for black Catholic women, the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
Servant of God Augustus Tolton (1854-97) is considered the first
African-American to be ordained a priest. He was a former slave in Missouri who became free in 1862 when his mother managed to take him and his brother across the Mississippi River to Illinois. He was ordained a priest in 1886, and eventually founded St. Monica Parish on the south side of Chicago.
Tolton is considered the first African-American priest only because the Healy family self-identified itself as white. However, the Healys were an amazing family.
Michael Healy owned a small plantation near Macon, Ga., in the early 19th century. He and one of his slaves, Eliza Clark, had 10 children together. Of course, laws then forbade interracial marriage and the children were considered slaves. Therefore, Michael sent them to the North for their education.
One of their children, James Augustine Healy, became the first U.S. Catholic bishop of African-American heritage. He headed the diocese of Portland, Maine, for 25 years, from 1875 to 1900.
His brother, Patrick, became a Jesuit priest and president of Georgetown University in Washington in 1866.
Their brother, Sherwood, was also ordained a priest and became rector of Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston.
Their sister, Josephine, joined the Hospitallers of St. Joseph in Montreal, and their sister, Eliza, joined the Congregation of Notre Dame, also in Montreal, and became mother superior of the Villa Barlow Convent in St. Albans, Vt.
All of these men and women overcame severe hardships and discrimination because of their race.
Father Tolton, for example, couldn’t find a seminary in the United States willing to accept a black man, and had to go to Rome to study and be ordained. Many lay Catholics in Baltimore reacted vehemently against Mother Lange’s religious congregation, refusing to accept black women religious.
After the Civil War, the Catholic Church began to evangelize among the blacks, especially those in the South. The Society of the Divine Word was founded for that purpose. Nevertheless, discrimination remained, as the story of Father Tolton indicates.
St. Katharine Drexel used the fortune she inherited to establish the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to work in schools for African-Americans and Native Americans. She also founded Xavier University in New Orleans, the only black Catholic university in the United States.
Today, there are about 3 million black Catholics in the United States. There are 16 black bishops, 250 black priests and 400 religious sisters.
—John F. Fink