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from issue no. 06 - 2011


Story of an uncommon fidelity

Notes on black Catholics in a conversation with Sister Jamie T. Phelps, O.P. of Xavier University of Louisiana

by Jamie T. Phelps

The traditional blessing of the Mississippi River <BR>[© Magnum/Contrasto]

The traditional blessing of the Mississippi River
[© Magnum/Contrasto]


BlackCatholics in the United States, are the leading figures in a forgotten history that speaks of people touched by the faith who gradually gained an identity that set them apart in history and culture. It is the story of an uncommon fidelity to the Church, despite their general invisibility as compared with other Catholics and Protestants. The United States is WASP, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant: there are more Protestants than Catholics,  and we black Catholics feel marginalized. Even many of our co-religionists do not exactly know our story. As a child, I recall, when I declared my faith in front of other Catholics, sometimes they would reply, “Well, but you must be Protestant ...”. There was, in fact, a certain tradition that when a black person approached a Catholic parish they were “forwarded” to the Protestant community. And it was a time when strict interpretation was being given to the extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. In short, we suffered a double marginalization.

Of course, as a black Catholic, if you’re living in a structured Catholic community, Irish for example, you end up celebrating St Patrick’s Day, learning Irish dances and absorbing all the culture. That’s what happened to me, I gradually absorbed a bit of Catholicism from the Italians – the feast of St Joseph’s Table – from Poles, Germans, and so on ... and all that just by going to school.


A “not insignificant” minority

It was only from the ’sixties of last century that we began to want to change the negative impression that others had of us. We considered that, as a community, we should have to give ourselves a name, and feel at peace with the color of our skin, even be proud of it. And then we also discovered that our roots went deep into the early centuries of Christianity in North Africa. We had to retrieve that history.

The statistics helped us in that effort. Catholics of African descent now number 270 million throughout the world, roughly one-fifth of Catholics around the globe. And three million African-Americans of Roman Catholic rite live in the United States. Some people consider us black Catholics “statistically” insignificant, although in some states we are a tradition now in its third or fourth generation, as in New Orleans, Baltimore and Chicago. Three million out of a total of about 60 million Catholics in the United States, however, is exactly the same number of faithful living in Ireland! There are now in the country about thirteen hundred Catholic places of worship attended predominantly by black people, or that are otherwise ethnically mixed parishes, while the number of those of us who receive the sacraments in predominantly “white” parishes is not known. There are 250 African-American Catholic priests, 380 permanent deacons, 300 religious, and there’s no sure data on lay brothers and people who do volunteer work in the Church. And I couldn’t say exactly how many of us in the “African diaspora” – priests, deacons, male and female religious or lay continental Africans, African-Caribbean or African-Latinos – now carry out a ministry in the Church.


What black Catholics believe

What do black American Catholics believe? They believe in what the Roman Catholic Church believes, perhaps with characteristic emphasis or accents, as happens in any particular community of believers.

In terms of religious practices, black Catholics are faithful to daily prayer. When you come across a black community you find them really friendly, they recognize and love the humanity of people, because it is the same humanity that Jesus had, and nothing must separate us from this ‘workaday’ holiness. We welcome everyone: we well remember nineteenth century America, when churches for whites were separated from those for blacks – in line with the culture of the time and the rules of law – and while Masses were celebrated for all according to the Latin rite, the assemblies of the faithful were made on an ethnic basis.

Council documents such as Gaudium et spes are in close agreement with the sensitivity of black Catholics. The Church’s need to go into the world is something that belonged to us even before the Council: we always invite others to join the Church. My Protestant friends, for example, constantly invite me to participate in their religious services, and sometimes I go along. As a child I felt the pressure of living in an ‘ecumenical’ neighborhood in which there were two Protestant churches – a Presbyterian to the east and a Baptist one to the west – and two Catholic – one north and one south. I had to walk farther than my peers to go to Mass, and that required some effort. Not least, moreover, because I didn’t understand why I would see some Catholics behaving in a very un-Christian fashion and some Protestants instead being ‘very’ Christian, and I didn’t grasp the dominant interpretation of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. Thank God so many things have changed since then.

Another basic text for us black Catholics is Justice in the World, issued by the World Synod of Bishops in 1971. My heart sang when I read that “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation”. Growing up as black people, we learned what marginalization meant and what disrespect was. Although it didn’t define us, we were aware of how little we were regarded by the culturally dominant groups. And when the Church taught us again that justice is a central element of the Gospel, we were comforted to know that it is not a true Church that which does not seek justice. Evangelization and social justice are our dimension when we are Church on mission.

Life interests us, and like all the Catholic faithful we are truly opposed to abortion, we are in an active manner. Because in the United States the reality is that abortions largely concern African-American children.

I would also like to make a mention of homosexuality. The black community has never marginalized homosexuals: the Church has taught us that the practice of homosexuality is a sin, and though having learned it as children, we have never lost sight of humanity. The gay boys who belonged to our neighborhood were welcome, all genuinely participated in the community, homosexuals just like heterosexuals. And I think that the doctrine of the Church points exactly to that.

The Church teaches that we must take care of the poor. The majority of black Americans are people with low-income, and not because they’re lazy: it’s simply the position assigned to them in the United States. It’s easy for us to obey this commandment, because often the poor man is our brother, our sister, our aunt or the man down the road. We’re not people who normally limit the extent of our family: if you live in the district, to me you’re a brother or sister; when a family plans a picnic, they already know all the neighborhood kids will come. That’s it, we easily become an extended family... And it’s natural that among the teachings of the social doctrine that of the dignity of the person finds resonance in our hearts.


Father Herbert Vaughan, founder of the Mill Hill Missionary Society of St Joseph, seated in the middle of the picture, with some missionary fathers and collaborators. In the front row two African-Americans can be seen holding rosaries, Baltimore, 1870 [© Mill Hill Missionaries Archive]

Father Herbert Vaughan, founder of the Mill Hill Missionary Society of St Joseph, seated in the middle of the picture, with some missionary fathers and collaborators. In the front row two African-Americans can be seen holding rosaries, Baltimore, 1870 [© Mill Hill Missionaries Archive]

Roots and conversion “one by one”

Let’s now come to the roots. Our history began in Africa, with the flourishing of Christianity in the third and fourth centuries. In North Africa the Christian community was culturally Roman and Mediterranean, but also Berber and black. Fathers such as Origen, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, the holy martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas, St Anthony of Egypt, St Moses the Monk of the desert, the African popes, saints Victor, Gelasius and Melchiades are all “ours”: we claim them with great pride, we feel them part of us. As we feel the history of the Church in Egypt or Ethiopia is ours. We even remember the Congo in the sixteenth century, under King Alfonso, who sent the Portuguese missionaries to spread Christianity. They were, however, in some way contiguous to the slave trade, and that is the bitter side of the story, in which good is flanked by evil. But we know that even though we were valued at less than we were worth, they gave us the faith.

In fact, since we were slaves for a long time, Roman Catholics of African origin can be found scattered everywhere. For example, Benedict the Moor in Italy, and St Martin de Porres in Peru were such. Probably most of this “diaspora” would not recognize themselves in the definition ‘black Catholic’, and a discussion would begin among us – as happens for example with the African-Caribbeans – on the limits of the concept and its inclusiveness. Because if I describe myself as African-American to a continental African I would put the stress on our differences, whereas if I describe myself as simply “black” I would focus on our indisputable common African origin, and “black” would thus become a beautiful word of welcome...

According to the history of the black Catholics by the Benedictine Cyprian Davis, the first African-American Catholic was Esteban, a slave baptized in Spain who arrived in America in 1536 along with some Spanish explorers. Between the sixteenth and the nineteenth century the baptisms in the Catholic Church of the African slaves brought to the colonies were administered with the consent of the owners. Those who fled from the British settlements in the Carolinas and Georgia were invited by the Spaniards to find freedom in Florida, where they were given the opportunity to accept Roman Catholicism. One of the goals of the Africans was the city of Saint Augustine, in Florida, in fact, where, between the eighteenth and nineteenth century, they lived, according to the documents, as slaves, freedmen, or soldiers.

Before the American Civil War numerous factors prevented much missionary activity to evangelize and baptize blacks, free or slaves, as they might be. We were converted “one by one”, not in groups or communities: the cuius regio eius religio was never applied to us. The aggravating circumstance was, if anything, that to be Catholic in the United States immediately aroused suspicions. The “foundation” of the State – I use the quotes deliberately because America was already inhabited by native Americans -– was the work of WASPs, and the Catholics who migrated to America were frowned upon and considered emissaries of the Pope with a mandate to stifle the autonomy gained compared to Europe. In order not to further irritate the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who also administered the slave trade, the Catholic Church was reluctant to denounce slavery, in order not to jeopardize its position by assuming a stance antithetical to the established order.

Catholicism, arriving in the United States with the various ethnic groups of immigrants, caught on thanks to the Irish, Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, and so on. Each ethnic group brought with it its own priests and respected the already established model of “cultural segregation of the ministry”. A residue of this phenomenon is still visible in the presence at the corners of some squares in American cities of four different Catholic churches, one for each ethnic group. So, from a certain point of view, the later emergence of a specific community of black Catholics was consistent with the pattern.


Slavery and “black congregations”

But it must be admitted that the relationship of Catholicism with black people was a bit... complex. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, bishops, clergy and lay Catholics interpreted slavery as “a legal socio-economic institution”. In the colonial period preceding the American Civil War the Church did not oppose slavery, as I’ve said, but asked for it to be made more humane. It was not until 1839 that Pope Gregory XVI, referring to Brazil, condemned the ‘shameful trade whereby the Negroes are enslaved’. The nineteenth century debate focused on the moral dimension of the slave trade and the result was that some were neutral, other abolitionist, others again anti-abolitionist, while some called for a gradual phasing out. However, there were bishops and priests here and there who continued, albeit sometimes necessarily sporadically, to baptize slaves and give them the sacramental life and religious instruction. Before the Civil War the episcopate favored the establishment of two ‘congregations of black nuns’ to instruct the slaves and freedmen, circumventing the legal prohibition in this regard. John England, bishop of Charleston, South Carolina, and the bishop of Saint Louis, Peter Kenrick, specifically built schools for black children and helped to found the religious congregations of the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, instituted in 1829 and officially recognized in 1831, and, a few years later, the Sisters of the Holy Family.

But what exactly does ‘congregation of black religious’ mean? Both the laws then in force and the practice meant that when black men and women offered themselves for priesthood or the religious life they were simply not accepted. It was not that there was a provision in the canonical ordinance that rejected them, but the practice was to manipulate the situation to keep them out, coming up with some reason to make it sound legitimate: perhaps because they were children of an unblessed marriage, or because there was no certainty that they had been Catholic all their life. Obstacles that were normally removed in other cases were made absolute for those who were of African descent. The result of this was precisely the ‘separate congregations’. In fact, however, the Oblate Sisters of Providence also took in and taught non-black children, the offspring of Europeans.


St Katharine Drexel with two Franciscan friars among the Navajo in Lukachukai, Arizona, in 1927 [© The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament Archive]

St Katharine Drexel with two Franciscan friars among the Navajo in Lukachukai, Arizona, in 1927 [© The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament Archive]

After the Civil War

After the Civil War and at the time of Reconstruction of the federal state, a new focus on former slaves emerged in the second (1866) and third (1884) Plenary Council of Baltimore, and the First Vatican Council (1870). The debates that took place made the US aware of its obligations, while a small number of diocesan priests and religious were already working among emancipated blacks. The main congregations devoted to the ministry among blacks were founded after Vatican I, and in any case ‘white’ priests, religious and lay people were hard at work. One of the new congregations that later distinguished itself was that of the Josephite Fathers, a direct descendant of the English Mill Hill Missionaries – thanks to the initiative of John Slattery. John was a young man of Irish descent born in New York, who became a priest in Great Britain in the St Joseph Missionary Society of Mill Hill before returning to America and founding the Josephite Fathers, whose specific task – the subject of a religious vow – was the ministry among black people. Father Slattery was convinced, and one can see it in his correspondence, that if his institute accepted priests of European descent as well as black priests the former would eventually gravitate towards the areas of cultural preference related to them, thus neglecting black people. That was the reason for the ‘black vow’ of the Josephite Fathers. Even today, they work almost exclusively with African-Americans. ‘St Augustine’, their school in New Orleans still exists and has a glorious history.

Then came the foundation of the Society of the Divine Word, the Fathers of the Holy Spirit and the Edmondites. The Fathers of the Holy Spirit opened a school for boys in Rockcastle, Virginia, called the ‘Saint Emma Military Academy’; the Society of the Divine Word built the ‘St. Augustine’ minor seminary in Mississippi.

Of the numerous congregations of men and women whose mission was exclusively to blacks, many, apart from those just mentioned, soon began addressing their mission to all people, regardless of skin color.

The Congregation of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament – founded by Katharine Drexel, canonized eleven years ago – remains faithful to the original mandate. Their mission was and is to promote parishes and schools for blacks and Native Americans. The university where I teach today, Xavier University, Louisiana, was also founded by St Katharine.


Our lay initiative

There is an initiative of lay black Catholics, that deserves to be mentioned in closing. It began before the term ‘lay ministry’ appeared in ecclesiastical documents and became the kind of catchphrase it is now, certainly in the States. The force behind one lay initiative was Daniel Rudd, who went to find and meet Catholic organizations in Europe and imported the model into the US in the nineteenth century, founding in 1889 the National Black Catholic Congress. During his life he organized five, where black bishops, priests and lay people – I have photos on file of those meetings and, frankly, you don’t see many women – tried to draft a common platform, not least to have a bigger say in the general ecclesial ministry. It was natural that Rudd should find himself working alongside Father Slattery, as indeed happened.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Thomas Wyatt Turner founded a group called the Federated Colored Catholics. He was truly sickened by the continuing race riots and had witnessed the lynching without trial of 75 blacks. When a sick and racist system will not accept changes, eruptions of violence are, unfortunately, to be expected. Wyatt, instead, sought constructive solutions and tried to help the Church through his Federation.

When in the ’sixties of the twentieth century we found ourselves challenged to respond to the changes underway in the Church and to those introduced by the civil rights movement, we turned to the tradition of the Congresses and we kept to it in the following decades. The nineteenth century legacy was revived in the twentieth, up until the creation of the National Office for Black Catholics in 1970. In the same mold is the Catholic Interracial Council, which supports whites and blacks in joint projects. In the period of the struggle for civil rights, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus was created, a fraternity of African-American priests with the mission of mutual aid and aid to the entire clergy. How to help ourselves and help others is a concern that we’ve always had, and the Institute for Black Catholic Studies of Xavier University has this founding passion. At first it was attended by those, white and black, who wanted to know more of the history of black Catholics, but today it is a study center sought after for the most part only by African-Americans. I would suggest to anyone coming to the United States because of their work as a priest or a religious to visit it. It is a mission center, created precisely to enable non-blacks to encounter us more easily, and gain personal experience of what the black community has given and gives to our Church.



(Text gathered by Giovanni Cubeddu and revised by the author)

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