November is Black Catholic History Month
The African-American Commission of the Buffalo Diocese celebrates Black Catholic History month in November. This year marks the 11th anniversary of the African-American Commission. Its mission is to address the social, economic and spiritual concerns of all African-American Catholics, to promote leadership, foster evangelization, and address issues of racial injustice in the Diocese of Buffalo.
According to the Archdiocese of Washington, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States designated November as Black Catholic History Month on July 24, 1990, to celebrate the long history and proud heritage of Black Catholics. Two commemorative dates fall within this month, St. Augustine’s birthday (Nov. 13) and St. Martin de Porres’ feast day (Nov. 3). More importantly, November not only marks a time when we pray for all saints and souls in loving remembrance, but also a time to recall the saints and souls of Africa and the African Diaspora.
African-American Catholics are rooted and connected to their faith by God and their ancestors who bore crosses long before their faith journey began. During Black Catholic History Month let us continue to pray and reflect on the lives of those who are on the road to sainthood because of their witness to the faith by the way they lived: Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Servant of God Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, Venerable Henriette Delille, Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton, Servant of God Julia Greeley, and Sister Thea Bowman.
Pierre Toussaint was born enslaved, but known as a philanthropist and founder of many Catholic charitable works. He was a notable hairdresser to the wealthy and entrepreneur in New York City; Toussaint spent his fortune helping others. He and his wife risked their lives serving others such as refugees, orphans, the sick and enslaved.
Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange was born Elizabeth Lange around 1794 in French-speaking Santiago de Cuba. She received an excellent education in the early 1800s and left Cuba to live in the United States to eventually settle in Baltimore, where she founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
The Oblate Sisters of Providence was the first congregation of African-American women religious. On July 2, 1829, Mother Mary Lange, with three other women, professed her vows and became an Oblate Sister of Providence. She was superior general from 1829 to 1832 and from 1835 to 1841. The Oblate Sisters of Providence met the needs of the times such as educating and evangelizing the young and old of those who were purchased to be enslaved and those freed of enslavement, serving the Catholic Haitian population of Maryland, sheltering the elderly, and providing a home for the orphans.
Henriette Delille was born a free woman of color – a Creole, who lived her life in New Orleans. She is known as the founder of the Society of the Holy Family and the first American of African descent whose cause for canonization was officially recognized by the Catholic Church.
During the time of the life of Venerable Henriette Delille, many women of her ethnic background were at the center of evangelizing many of the free and enslaved. According to the current members of the Society of the Holy Family, records show that sisters of the Society of the Holy Family served as godmothers to many and cared for the sick, the poor and elderly.
The Society of the Holy Family is considered as founding the first Catholic home for the elderly. They also educated the free and enslaved.
Venerable Henriette Delille also faced many struggles as her religious congregation was not initially accepted by the Church and religious authority. She also suffered from poor health. Lastly, she is known to have lived her prayer. “I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I want to live and die for God,” she has been quoted as saying.
Father Augustus Tolton was born enslaved and is known to be the first ordained African-American Roman Catholic priest. According to Sister Caroline Hemesath, author of “From Slave to Priest: The Inspirational Story of Father Augustine Tolton,” he fled slavery with his mother by crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois.
Father Tolton studied formally in Rome and he was ordained in 1886 in Rome on Easter Sunday at the Cathedral Archbasilica of St. John Lateran.
Father Tolton was ordained for the southern Illinois Diocese of Quincy. Upon his return in July 1886, he was greeted at the train station “like a conquering hero,” the website of St. Elizabeth’s Parish says.
Father Tolton also led the formation and construction of St. Monica’s, an African-American church and parish in Chicago.
Julia Greeley, a laywoman, Catholic convert, and ex-enslaved servant of God was proposed for canonization from the Denver Archdiocese in December 2016. She was the first person buried in Denver’s cathedral.
Born as a slave between 1833 and 1848 in Hannibal, Mo., Greeley arrived in Colorado in 1874, 11 years after slaves were freed. Four years later, she came to Denver with Julia Gilpin, wife of Colorado’s first territorial governor, William Gilpin. Following her conversion to Catholicism in 1880, she became a daily Mass attendee.
Despite her scant means, she became known as Denver’s “Angel of Charity,” as she went through town pulling a red wagon filled with items she bought, found or begged for poor families and which she often delivered at night in secret.
Known for her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, each month she walked to all 20 of Denver’s fire stations to give Sacred Heart prayer pamphlets to firefighters because their jobs were so dangerous. She died on the feast of the Sacred Heart, after falling ill on her way to morning Mass.
Sister Thea Bowman, birth name Bertha Elizabeth Bowman, was born in Yazoo City, Miss., in 1937 to a Methodist family. Sister Thea received a bachelor’s degree in English Speech, and Drama and master’s and Ph.D. degrees in English, English Language, Literature and Linguistics from the Catholic University of America. She was the first African-American to receive a doctorate in Theology from Boston College. She taught over six years at the elementary, high school and college levels. Then was invited by the bishop of Jackson, Miss., to become the consultant for intercultural awareness. In that role she especially helped children to grow in their awareness of their gifts and cultural heritage. Also known for her evangelization, gift of storytelling, and being a role model for those experiencing terminal illnesses, she wrote the scholarly introduction to “Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal.”
Archbishop Wilton Gregory makes Black Catholic history by becoming the first African-American cardinal, appointed by Pope Francis. Archbishop Gregory was born Dec. 7, 1947, in Chicago. He was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago on May 9, 1973, and graduated with a doctorate in sacred liturgy in 1980 from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute (Saint’ Anselmo) in Rome.
He served as an associate pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, as a faculty member of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelien, as master of ceremonies to Cardinals John Cody and Joseph Bernardin, as auxiliary bishop of Chicago, and as the seventh archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington since May 21, 2019. Archbishop Gregory has served in many leading roles in the U.S. church such as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and has written extensively on church issues particularly in the African-American community, several pastoral statements about the death penalty, physician-assisted suicide, and the subject of liturgy.