Celebrating a legacy of faith during Black Catholic History Month
Nov 19, 2020
During November, the Catholic Church in the United States celebrates Black Catholic History Month to remember, honor and celebrate the gifts Catholics of African heritage bring to the Church.
Black Catholic History Month was started in 1990 when the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States decreed that there needed to be a time set aside to acknowledge and appreciate the accomplishments of Black Catholics.
November was chosen as the month to do this because several dates important to black Catholics occur during November:
• Nov. 1 is All Saints Day, the celebration of all the saints – including the countless saints of African descent.
• Nov. 2 is All Souls Day, the remembrance of all the faithfully departed – including those who died while enslaved.
• Nov. 3 is the Feast Day of St. Martin de Porres, the first Black American saint. Canonized in 1962, his life was dedicated to serving God by serving the poor and the needy.
• Nov. 4 is the birthday of St. Monica. Born in North Africa in the fourth century, she was the mother of St. Augustine, and it was her prayers that led to her son’s conversion. Her feast day is Aug. 27. She is the patron saint of religious conversion, married women and mothers.
• Nov. 5 is the birthday of Mother Henriette Delille, a 19th century woman of color who was born in New Orleans and founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, this country’s second religious order for Black women.
• Nov. 13 is the birthday of St. Augustine, a North African bishop, theologian, author and philosopher whose conversion to the Catholic faith came about due to the prayers of his mother, St. Monica. St. Augustine is the first African to be honored as a Doctor of the Church. His feast day is Aug. 28. One of the oldest cities in the United States is St. Augustine, Florida, which was named after this great saint. The first Catholic Mass in North America was celebrated there. St. Augustine Parish, regarded as the mother church for Black Catholics in the nation’s capital, was founded by free men and women of color in 1858 and is named for this saint.
• Nov. 20 is the day that Zumbi of Palmares died in 1695. King Zumbi was a hero and freedom fighter who established a state for free blacks in Brazil.
Black Catholic history dates to the very beginning of the Church. Africa traces its Christian roots to the conversion of an Ethiopian man by Philip the deacon. This event is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. After this man was baptized, Christianity spread throughout Africa. Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus carry His Cross to Calvary. Cyrene is on the north coast of Africa.
Also, in the early years of the Church, there were three popes from Africa: Pope Victor I, Pope Gelasius I and Pope Melchiades. Pope Victor changed the Church’s official language from Greek to the Latin that is still used today. Pope Gelasius wrote a book of hymns and outlined Church teaching on the Eucharist. Pope Melchiades helped make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. All three are saints.
When the city of St. Augustine, Florida was founded in 1565, among those joining the Spaniards in establishing the city were many Africans – some free and some enslaved. The earliest record of a black child being born in the United States was in 1606 in St. Augustine. The child was Catholic.
In addition to Mother Henriette Delille, whose cause for sainthood is under consideration, many African-Americans have had a great impact on the Church in this country, including:
• Servant of God Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, who was born in Cuba to Haitian parents, and was the first superior of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an order established in Baltimore to educate black children. The order, which Mother Lange and three other women founded, is the first and oldest religious congregation for women of color in the United States.
Mother Lange founded the order while Maryland was still a slave-holding state. Despite facing racism and low funds and even a cholera outbreak in Baltimore, Mother Lange and her sisters evangelized African Americans through Catholic education. She and her sisters also taught night school and vocational classes for African Americans, widows and orphans.
When she died in 1882, she was well respected and beloved for her holiness. Her cause for canonization was approved in 2004.
• Servant of God Julia Greeley was born enslaved in Missouri sometime in the 1830s or 1840s. As a young child she was so severely beaten by a cruel slave master, that she lost her right eye and became permanently lame. She was eventually freed in 1865. After she was freed, she worked as a servant for families in her native Missouri and in the western states of Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado. Most of her domestic work was in the Denver area.
What little money she earned, she would spend on poor families and children in the Denver area. When she did not have enough of her own money to help the poor, she would go out begging for food, clothing and other things that she would give to others. Because she did not want anyone to be embarrassed by accepting charity, she did most of her charity work at night.
Julia became a Catholic in 1880 and attended Mass at Denver’s Sacred Heart Parish. She attended Mass every day and had a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. She also was very devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and every month she would visit every firehouse in the city to deliver devotional material about the Sacred Heart.
Greeley was so well known for her kindness and holiness that she was often referred to as “Denver’s Angel of Charity.” When she died in 1918, more than 1,000 people attended her funeral and to pay their respects to this good and holy woman. Her cause for sainthood was opened in 2016.
• Venerable Pierre Toussaint, who lived from 1766 to 1853, was born in slavery in Haiti and moved to New York City in 1787. He earned his freedom in 1807 and became a hairdresser. He became very wealthy and was able to buy freedom for his enslaved sister and his future wife. He and his wife – both of whom were devout Catholics and well known for their kindness – used their money to serve others. They opened their home as an orphanage and assisted the homeless and the poor. He was a benefactor of a school for black children and he helped raise money to construct St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. He died in 1853, and his cause for sainthood is being investigated by the Vatican.
Other Black Catholic Americans whose causes for sainthood are underway include Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, a Missouri native who was ordained to the priesthood in Rome in 1886 and was the first publicly identified Black man to be ordained a Catholic priest for the United States; and Sister Thea Bowman, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and a dynamic evangelist who died of bone cancer in 1990.
Many holy persons of African descent have long been recognized and honored by the Church as examples for all men and women of faith. Among them are:
• Saints Julian and Basilissa were a married couple from North Africa who made their home into a hospital to treat poor people. They were martyred for their Catholic faith in the fourth century after suffering torture and persecution. Their feast day is Jan. 6.
• St. Anthony of Alexandria was a third century African man born to wealthy parents. He gave all his money to the poor and lived as a hermit, devoting all of his time to working and prayer. He is known as the Father of All Monks and his feast day is Jan. 17.
• St. Josephine Bakhita was born in the Sudan in 1869. As a young girl, she was kidnapped and sold into slavery. At the age of 14, her owners moved to Italy taking Josephine with her. There, she learned about the Catholic faith from the Canossian Daughters of Charity. After converting to Catholicism, she entered that religious order. She was a religious sister for 50 years, serving as a cook, seamstress, and doorkeeper. She was known for her great holiness by the time she died in 1947. She was canonized in 2000.
• St. Perpetua was a third century noble woman from Africa. She and her maid, St. Felicity, were devoted to their Catholic faith at a time when it was illegal to be a Christian. St. Perpetua and St. Felicity were arrested and tortured, but would not give up their faith. After being held in prison, the two holy women were beheaded.
• St. Maurice of Aganaum was a third century Roman soldier who was born in Africa. He was a devoted Christian despite it being illegal to be so. He became a general and commanded a legion of soldiers in France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland. When it was discovered he was a Christian, he was tortured and killed.
• St. Charles Lwanga was a 19th century convert to Catholicism who was born in Uganda. He was a servant to the leader of his tribe and he instructed many people in the Catholic faith. When the leader of the tribe demanded that Christians give up their faith, Charles and 22 others refused. They were tortured before being burned to death. Charles and the others were declared saints in 1964. St. Charles Lwanga is the patron saint of African Youth.
• St. Benedict the Moor was born to enslaved African parents in Italy in 1522, but was granted his freedom at the moment of his birth. He was a hermit for a short time before becoming a Franciscan Friar. Throughout his life, he was well known for his charity, his holiness and for performing many miracles.