February is officially designated as “Black History Month” in the United States of America. It is an annual celebration of the achievements of African Americans and a time of recognition of their central role in the history of our nation. How fitting it is, then, to share the following stories of some of the holy members of the African American Catholic Community who have blessed our country with profound and noble examples of loving service and compassionate care of the poor and vulnerable.
All of them currently are being given consideration by the Congregation of the Causes of Saints in the Vatican. Some of them have achieved the status of being designated as “Servant of God,” meaning their cause is being given appropriate investigation while others have been accorded the title “Venerable,” meaning that the Pope already has declared their cause to contain heroic virtue. These two steps toward Sainthood precede the classification of Beatification and Canonization.
Venerable Pierre Toussaint (1766-1853) was born a slave in Haiti. Upon his arrival in the United States, he not only achieved free status but also became a very successful businessman and entrepreneur. Pierre was lavish in his generosity and is sometimes called the forerunner of the establishment of Catholic Charities in New York. He was instrumental in raising funds for the first Catholic orphanage and school for black children as well for the construction of the Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, located in Lower Manhattan. He also supported the formation of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, a religious community black of sisters founded in Baltimore. And, during a time of a Yellow Fever epidemic, when many of the other city leaders fled New York in search of healthier rural climates, Pierre remained in the city to tend to the sick and dying.
Servant of God Mother Elizabeth Mary Lange (1784-1882) seems to have been born in Santiago, Cuba, and arrived in the United States in Baltimore in the early 1800s. She used her own money and home to educate children of color. Later, she and her friends where challenged by Church leaders to found an entire school for girls of color. This community eventually became the religious community of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, and Elizabeth became both its foundress and first Superior. Mother Lange went on to establish an orphanage, a home for widows, a school of vocational training, and a literacy program for adults. During the 1830s and 1840s, there was an outbreak of cholera, and it was the Oblate sisters who nursed the sick.
Venerable Sister Henriette Delille (1812-62) was born in New Orleans and was a free woman of color. Her father was born in France, and her mother was a Creole who descended from a slave from West Africa. When she was 24 years old, Henriette had a religious experience, which prompted her in 1836 to begin to form what eventually became the Sisters of the Holy Family. Their charism was to nurse the sick, care for the poor and instruct the uneducated. The Sisters also are credited with creating the first Catholic Home for the Elderly in the United States. Sister Henriette lived by the simple prayer, “I believe in God. I hope in God. I love God. I want to live and die for God.”
Venerable Father Augustus Tolton (1854-97) is the first recognized African American priest in the United States. Also known as “Augustine,” he was born in Missouri and at the age of 9, fled via the Underground Railroad with his mother and brothers to freedom in Quincy, Illinois. He was a spiritual child with a heart-felt vocation to the priesthood. However, he suffered a number of disappointments when discrimination caused the decline of his application to seminaries. Ultimately, the Franciscan Fathers were able to maneuver his acceptance to the Propaganda Fide Seminary in Rome. Upon his ordination, he returned to the Diocese of Alton, only to face fierce racism by area clergy, both Catholic and Protestant. He then accepted an invitation from the Archbishop of Chicago, Patrick Feehan, to work there with a fledgling group of Black Catholics in the central city. Eventually, he nurtured and grew the community to build a new church, the parish of St. Monica. Fr. Tolton then became a leading spokesman for black Catholics in Chicago and throughout the United States.
Servant of God Julia Greeley (1833-1918) was born into slavery in Hannibal and was not freed from its yoke until Missouri’s Emancipation Act in 1865. She eventually left to become a domestic worker for families in New Mexico, Wyoming and Colorado – mostly in Denver. Julia was a daily Communicant and a passionate supporter of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Although of very modest financial means, she used whatever money she had to give assistance to those she considered much poorer than herself. When she lacked the resources to fund her charity, she would beg on behalf of the needy. Moreover, Julia was extremely sensitive to the self-esteem of the poor, so she almost always delivered her donations in a little red wagon during the night; thus the recipients would be spared the embarrassment of being seen by neighbors receiving aid. Ultimately, her charity became renowned, and when she died, the body of Julia was laid in state and visited by many wishing to pay their respects, both rich and poor alike.
Servant of God Sr. Thea Bowman (1937-90) was born in Mississippi and converted to Catholicism as a young child. At age 15, she expressed a desire to pursue a vocation in religious life, joining the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, whose Motherhouse is located in La Crosse. She began her ministry as a teacher but later was asked by the bishop of the Diocese of Jackson to serve as the Diocesan Consultant for Intercultural Awareness. Sr. Thea’s vibrancy and vitality blossomed in this role, and she became a speaker much in-demand for presentations, conferences, seminars, and retreats. Her combination of singing, gospel preaching, praying and story-telling was captivating and inspired many to dedicate themselves to the cause of working for equality, justice and racial harmony. Although diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984, she refused to let this obstacle slow her down. She chose to “live until I die,” and left a legacy that continues on in literature, the arts, charitable foundations, and social service programs and institutions created in her honor.
A joint Resource Center for the purpose of producing ongoing scholarly work focusing on these candidates for Sainthood of African American ancestry has been founded at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans.