Hungarian Genealogy: It All Goes Back to the Roman Catholic Church

A Millennium of Catholicism in Hungary

The Catholic faith has a deep and lasting legacy in the history of the Hungarian people. Not too many nations can boast of the canonization of one of their former monarchs as Hungary can of its beloved King St. Stephen.

The Catholic faith that was established in this western European nation – although challenged by Islam, Protestantism, and Communism – is still solid today. In fact, the new Hungarian constitution that will take effect in January 2012 has strongly reaffirmed the nation’s dedication to its Catholic foundations. (Read my Catholic Gene article Hungary’s New Constitution Reestablishes its Foundation on the Catholic Faith of its Forefathers.)

St. Elizabeth of Hungary serving the poor

Today, November 17, we remember another beloved Hungarian saint, although unlike King St. Stephen, she never actually lived in what is now considered present-day Hungary. This 13th century queen-turned-Franciscan-tertiary is remembered as St. Elizabeth of Hungary (Szent Erzsébet in Hungarian) although she was born in the area that is now known as Bratislava, Slovakia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire). Elizabeth was promised in marriage to a prince and at the age of four went to live with his family in what is now Marburg, Germany. Despite her royal status, she lived a life of generosity and simplicity committed to the works of mercy as inspired by St. Francis of Assisi.

Being named Lisa (which derives from Elizabeth) and having Hungarian heritage, I’ve adopted St. Elizabeth of Hungary as one of my patron saints. Today as I celebrate both my Hungarian heritage and the feast day of this holy young queen, I’d like to take you on a tour of the Hungarian Roman Catholic genealogy resources which are central to every genealogist’s search for ancestors in Hungary, no matter what faith they practiced.

Hungarian Genealogy 101

Anyone searching for vital records in Hungary before 1895 will have to rely on church records. Civil registration in the Austro-Hungarian Empire did not begin until that year. The Catholic faith has long been the prominent religion in Hungary, and although there are a handful of other churches that also kept records, even a search for non-Catholic ancestors may benefit from a visit to the records of the Roman Catholic Church. From the years 1730 to 1787, priests were required to keep records for all citizens of this Catholic nation, regardless of their religious affiliation (Greek Catholics*, Reformed Calvinists, Evangelical Lutherans and Jews included). When Protestants were first authorized in 1787 to keep their own registers, Hungarian imperial law required that they do so under Catholic supervision.

Depiction of the Council of Trent by artist Matthias Burglechner

The 1563 Council of Trent had first required Roman Catholic churches to keep parish registers, however Turkish rule in many areas of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prevented churches there from complying. A few early Franciscan registers date back to the mid-1600s, however, although most parishes do not have entries until the 1680s or later (after the departure of the Turks). Hungarian Roman Catholic Church records are now the property of the state (through the National Archives of Hungary in Budapest: Magyar Országos Leveltár), although they are stored in various county archives.

Hungarian Roman Catholic records with genealogical interest can come in several languages and include birth and christening registers (Kereszteltek Anyakönyve), marriage registers (Házasultak Anyakönyve) and death and burial registers (Halottak Anyakönyve). In Latin, the sacramental and death records are Matricula Baptisatorum, Matricula Copulatorum, and Matricula Defunctorum, respectively.

This baptismal registry lists the birth of my great-great-grandfather Istvan Tóth in 1874. It indicates the religion of the parents, including the Greek Catholic faith of his mother Erzsébet.

For help with simple translations, visit John Jaso’s Church Record Translations website, specifically the Hungarian and Latin terms and phrases webpages. (The website also includes help with the Slovak language.)

Hungarian Roman Catholic birth and baptismal records, particularly the more recent ones, will often include the birthdate along with the Baptism date, names of the child, parents, godparents (and sometimes grandparents), and town of residence. Marriage records will include the same basic information in addition to residence of origin for both the bride and groom, previous marital status, ages, names of parents and witnesses, and occupations. Church death records tend to have less genealogical information, although they may also include cause of death, birthdate and birthplace of the deceased, and names of survivors.

This 1904 birth record for István Tóth lists the birthplaces of each of his parents: Mezőkeresztes and Gelej, Hungary.

Hungarian Roman Catholic sacramental and death records have been microfilmed up to the year 1895 (some later) and are organized by church and then chronologically by date. They are usually not indexed, so without a known date the search can be time consuming.

Genealogist Felix Game has some helpful tips on reading Hungarian parish registers on his Austro-Hungarian genealogy website. Researchers unfamiliar with Hungarian names are often unaware that the family surname is listed before the given name. When the Hungarian records are in Latin, however, this order is switched and the surname is last.

If you are only beginning work on your Hungarian family tree, or you are well into the lifelong search we call genealogy, you may find the following websites and resources helpful*:

A good printed resource that I have on my shelf is Jared Suess’ Handy Guide to Hungarian Genealogical Records published in 1980 by Everton Publishers.

Subscribing to Hungarian genealogy email lists can be also be helpful to get you in contact with others researching similar areas.

Of course, don’t forget to stop by Nick Gombash’s Genealogy Blog and my 100 Years in America blog which both feature Hungarian genealogy.

Roman Catholic Church in my ancestors’ home village of Mezőkeresztes, Hungary

*Update: I am pleased to announce that I have written a small guide to Hungarian genealogy that I hope will be of help to both beginning and experienced researchers. If you are searching for Magyar roots, take a look at my Hungarian Genealogy QuickGuide™ published by Legacy Family Tree.


In the opening words of the new Hungarian constitution: “O Lord, blessed be the Hungarian nation.” And blessed be you who search diligently through records and struggle to translate foreign documents in search of your Hungarian lineage. May St. Elizabeth of Hungary, King St. Stephen, and all of those that have gone before you tracing their Hungarian genes, smile upon you and give you their blessing.

*Note: The Hungarian Greek Catholic Church comes under the category of the Byzantine or Eastern Rite Catholic Church. It originated in the 1600s after the Orthodox Ukrainian Ruthenes, Romanians and Serbs within the empire agreed to come under the jurisdiction of the Pope while being allowed to continue using the Orthodox liturgy. Most of these parishes began keeping registers in the mid-1700s.

Hungary’s New Constitution Reestablishes its Foundation on the Catholic Faith of its Forefathers

My grandfather gave up his rights as a citizen of the empire of Austria-Hungary back in 1929.  According to his petition for naturalization, it was his “bona fide intention to renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, and particularly to The Republic of Austria and the Present Government of Hungary.” Still, I feel a strong attachment to the nation where he got his start in life before emigrating at the age of 2 ½.

Young Pista Toth ("Pista" means little Stephen in Hungarian) made the journey with his mother and siblings from his family's home village of Gelej, Hungary to the port of Hamburg, Germany and then to New York City aboard the U.S.S. Pennsylvania in 1907. Here are their names on the passenger list.

Though I haven’t yet had the opportunity to visit the land of my ancestors, the culture and traditions of Hungary have become a part of my identity, as has the Catholic faith passed down to me through my Hungarian family tree.

I am saddened by the stories of the suffering of the Hungarian people (including my own distant cousins) under Communist rule, and often wonder how the lives of those in my branch of the family might have been different if my great-grandparents had not made the decision to take their four young children to America at the birth of the 20th century.

With this background in my family, I was very interested to hear the news that a new Hungarian Constitution taking effect in January 2012 takes brave steps to renounce its former Communist overlords and the current European trend toward modernism and reaffirm its national heritage based on the thousand-year-old Christian and nationalist foundation of Hungary begun by King St. Stephen.

Hungary's national treasure - the Crown of King St. Stephen - was a gift from the Pope in 1000 A.D.

The constitution is decidedly Christian, pro-tradition, pro-family, pro-children and pro-life: all important elements of the Catholic faith.  Below are a few elements of and excerpts from the new constitution, including its National Avowal of Faith (which I encourage you to read in full).

A re-emphasis on Hungary’s ties to Christendom:

  • “We are proud, that our King St. Stephen established the Hungarian state on firm foundations a thousand years ago and our country a part of Christian Europe.”
  • “We recognize the role of Christianity in preserving our nationhood.”

A statement of nationalism and ethnic pride of the Hungarian people:

  • “We respect the achievements of our historic constitution and the Holy Crown, which embodies the continuity of the Hungarian constitutional state and the unity of the nation.”
  • “We are proud of our forefathers who struggled for survival, freedom, and independence of our country.”
  • “We are proud that our people have battled for centuries to protect Europe and have, with their talent and diligence, enriched her common values.”
  • “We undertake to preserve and nurture our legacy, the Hungarian culture, our unique language, the man-made and natural treasures of the Carpathian-basin.”

A reestablishment of the family as the central focus of the state:

  • “We profess that the most important frameworks for our coexistence are the family and the nation.”

An effort to preserve the unity and culture of Hungary by attending to the needs of Hungarian emigrants outside of its borders:

  • “Motivated by the ideal of a unified Hungarian nation, Hungary shall bear a sense of responsibility for the destiny of Hungarians living outside her borders, shall promote their survival and development, and will continue to support their efforts to preserve their Hungarian culture, and foster their cooperation with each other and with Hungary.”

As Europe continues to reshape its identity in the 21st century – what has been termed a post-modern age – it is interesting for those of us with ties to our Hungarian Catholic heritage to watch the reaffirmation of the thousand-year-old faith foundation that is our legacy.

The Immigrant Saint: St. Frances Cabrini

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917)

Today, November 13, is the feast day of St. Frances Cabrini.  I never really knew much about Mother Cabrini except that she was a nun, she has a college named after her in my area, and I once visited a shrine in Colorado that had a large statue of her.  In reading a short biography on her feast day last year, I had to stop after I read  that she “was the first American citizen to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church…”  The genealogist in me paused…American citizen, eh?  We’ll see about that!  So I set off to find the good sister’s immigration record and naturalization papers.  And, because some of our government records are as trusty as the good old Catholic school permanent record, I found it!

The first American-citizen saint was born Francesca Saverio Cabrini on July 15, 1850 in Italy.  She was 27 years old when she became a nun and added the name Xavier in honor of St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit priest.  Sr. Frances Xavier Cabrini became a teacher, and she eventually founded an order of missionary sisters in 1880.  Although her hope was to travel to the East as a missionary, the Pope asked her to instead travel West to minister to Italian immigrants in the United States.  She immigrated herself in 1889 and petitioned for citizenship in 1909.

Mother Cabrini's petition for naturalization. SOURCE: Selected U.S. Naturalization Records - Original Documents, 1790-1974.

By the time of Mother Cabrini’s death in 1917, she and her order had founded 67 schools, orphanages, and other institutions throughout the United States as well as in Europe and South America.  She became a saint in 1946 and is the patron saint of immigrants.

So the next time you’re researching passenger arrival or naturalization records, pay close attention to the names.  Who knows, maybe your ancestor stood in line with a future saint to enter this country!

Serving Those Who Serve: Military Chaplains

The only experience I had as a child with military chaplains was watching Fr. Mulcahy on the television show M*A*S*H. As a teenager, I learned that my own pastor, Msgr. George Wierzalis, had been a chaplain in the Pacific theater during World War II. Although I knew “Father George” well during my teen years working at the rectory, he never talked about his experience as a chaplain. According to his assistant pastor, he had ministered to so many young, dying men that he didn’t want to discuss it.  Fr. George died while I was in college, so I was never able to ask him more about his military service.

In my late 20’s, I came to know military chaplains in an entirely different way while working as a contract specialist for the Defense Logistics Agency.  My area procured the uniforms and equipment needed by the military. Although our sole focus was clothing and textile items, we became responsible for a new class of items – ecclesiastical supplies. Fortunately for my office, I knew a good deal about these supplies from the years spent assisting at my parish as well as from having a couple of good friends who were priests.  Fortunately for me, the program became my responsibility, and through my new duties I had the honor of getting to know a very special category of military servicemen – our chaplains.

Army Chaplain Corps

The seal of the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps: For God and Country.

The Ecclesiastical Supplies Program provided Catholic/Christian, Jewish, and Muslim supplies to military chaplains.  Some of the items, such as bibles, rosaries, or prayer books, were intended for the troops.  Other items, like vestments, were for the chaplains’ use.  The most significant items in our catalog were the “Chaplain’s Kits” which allowed the Chaplain to conduct religious services in the field – which literally could mean in the field, or in the desert, or wherever the troops and their chaplains found themselves without a chapel or any building for services. The kits were small but contained all of the necessary items for a priest to say Mass, and the altar linens were in a camouflage green color instead of white in case the service was being held under fire.

I met many chaplains of all faiths during my time as manager of this program, and I was continually impressed by their ability to offer comfort even if the person in need did not share the chaplain’s own faith.  I met a rabbi and a priest or two, but the majority of the chaplains I met were Protestant ministers – the military has an even bigger priest shortage than some other dioceses of the country. Because there were so few Catholic chaplains, they were in great demand and usually were responsible for ministering to thousands of soldiers even if they had to travel great distances to reach them all.

Some may be surprised to hear that the military goes to great lengths to ensure that their servicemen and women are free to practice the religion of their choice and have ministers available for their religious needs.  But chaplains have always been a part of the U.S. military – chaplains were present when General George Washington assumed command of the Continental Army as well as in every conflict since.

With a canvas tarpaulin for a church and packing cases for an altar, a Navy chaplain holds mass for Marines at Saipan. The service was held in memory of brave buddies who lost their lives in the initial landings. Photo by Sgt. Steele, June 1944. SOURCE: U.S. Marines (public domain)

In every war our country has fought there have been Catholic (and non-Catholic) chaplains serving alongside the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines.  Chaplains are unarmed non-combatants whose mission is to provide for the religious needs of the unit whether that may be worship services or counseling sessions or rites such as marriages, baptisms, and funerals.  Each war or conflict has examples of chaplains who have lost their lives while assisting other servicemen and many chaplains are recipients of the nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor.

One blog post is not long enough to give due credit to every chaplain in every conflict.  But I’d like to name two of the Catholic priests who served so that more people can become familiar with their courageous stories. These two men in particular have received the title “Servant of God” which is the first step in the canonization process to sainthood.

Fr. Emil Kapaun

Fr. Emil Kapaun (1916-1951). SOURCE: U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School (public domain photo)

Fr. Emil Kapaun was born in 1916 in Kansas to Czech immigrants. He became a priest in 1940 and entered the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps in 1944.  He served for two years, including in the Burma Theater.  In 1948, he re-enlisted in the Army.  In July, 1950, Fr. Kapaun was sent to Korea – one month before North Korea invaded South Korea. The unit he was with, the 35th Brigade from Ft. Bliss, engaged in combat as they moved north.  During these battles, Fr. Kapaun would often run into mortar fire and risk his own life to rescue wounded soldiers and bring them to safety.

In November, 1950, Fr. Kapaun was with the 8th Cavalry Regiment when they were overrun by the Chinese Army. The Army retreated, but he stayed behind with the wounded soldiers and they were captured.  Fr. Kapaun remained in a prisoner-of-war camp until his death on May 23, 1951. Survivors of that POW camp have testified that Fr. Kapaun ministered to fellow prisoners in both spiritual and physical ways. He would offer up his own portion of what little nourishment they received to others who were sick and challenged the prison guards when they mistreated the prisoners. Father also spent hours in prayer and helped many fellow prisoners with the Sacraments.  Because of his heroic actions and devout life, the cause for his canonization to sainthood was opened in 1993. Several miracles have been attributed to Fr. Kapaun’s intercession and are under investigation by the Vatican.

Fr. Vincent Capodanno

Fr. Vincent Capodanno (1929-1967) SOURCE: Naval Historical Center Online Library (public domain)

Fr. Vincent Capodanno, also known as “the Grunt Padre”, was born in 1929 in New York.  He was ordained a priest in 1957 and became a missionary to Taiwan for seven years.  In December, 1965, Fr. Capodanno became a chaplain with the U.S. Navy and was assigned to the First Marine Division in April, 1966.  He was with the Marines on September 4, 1967 during Operation Swift when they engaged in battle with the North Vietnamese. Vastly outnumbered, the Marines took heavy casualties as they awaited reinforcements.  Fr. Capodanno ministered to the wounded and offered last rites to the dying. Fr. Capodanno came under fire himself and was wounded in the face as well as his hand, which was nearly severed.  Despite his injuries, he ran into fire to help a wounded Marine and was killed.  For his heroic actions, he posthumously received the Medal of Honor. He was declared a “Servant of God” in 2006 as the first step in the canonization process. Many veterans testify to the good works of Fr. Capodanno and the difference he made in their lives.

Pray for Our Chaplains!

These are only two stories of Catholic priests who served as military chaplains serving those who serve by fighting for our country. There are many other stories of brave and heroic deeds of chaplains, and this very day there are Catholic priests in Iraq and Afghanistan with our soldiers and Marines to provide for their spiritual needs.

Apr. 19, 2003 -- Father Bill Devine, the 7th Marines' Regiment Chaplain, speaks to U.S. Marines assigned to the 5th Marine Regiment during Catholic Mass at one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Tikrit, Iraq. SOURCE: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Andrew P. Roufs (public domain)

My work with the military chaplaincy became a career stepping stone for me, but I miss my chaplain friends to this day.  Even though I am no longer responsible for the program, the chaplains still hold a special place in my heart. Today, on Veterans Day, we honor and salute all men and women who have served our country. But in a special way let’s also remember our chaplain veterans – the occasionally forgotten heroes of our country.  Please offer a pray for all of those serving today, and may God strengthen our chaplains so that they can continue to offer support to our troops.

For further reading:

The Mother of All Churches

Here’s a Catholic trivia question: What’s the Pope’s church?  If you answered, like most people, “St. Peter’s at the Vatican” – you’re incorrect.  The Pope’s church – the cathedral for the Diocese of Rome, Italy – is St. John Lateran.  But because it is the Pope’s church, St. John Lateran is officially the “mother church”.  It is known as the mother and head of all churches of Rome and the world!

Urbi et orbi

In Latin: "The sacred Lateran, mother and the head of all churches of the city and the world" SOURCE: St. John Lateran (Rome, Italy), photographed by the author on March 5, 2000.

A basilica has stood on this site since the 4th century.  The current façade dates from the 18th century, but much of the interior is from 1646.  Beneath the high altar is a small table which tradition holds was used by St. Peter to celebrate Mass.  The basilica has withstood fire, earthquakes, and wars – and even two attacks by the Vandals.


Canopy over the papal altar. SOURCE: St. John Lateran (Rome, Italy) photographed by the author on March 5, 2000.

Today, November 9th, the Roman Catholic Church everywhere celebrates the Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran.  Normally a dedication of a church is celebrated and remembered by its parishoners.  In the case of St. John Lateran, we as Catholics are all parishoners whether we’ve been to visit or not.  Today’s feast is our universal celebration of our mother church!

Lateran exterior

The author and friends outside of St. John Lateran. SOURCE: St. John Lateran (Rome, Italy) photographed by the author's friend on March 5, 2000.

The First African-American Priest in the USA

Who was the first African-American Catholic Priest?

The answer is . . . it depends on who you ask and how you ask the question! And sometimes the same person will give two different answers!

First a small personal admission: I don’t think I ever saw a black Catholic priest until I was well into my adulthood. I guess I assumed that there were some somewhere; I just never thought that much about it.

The leading contenders are Father James Healy (1830-1900), ordained 1854; and Father Augustine Tolton (1854-1897), ordained 1886.

The simple genealogical data would seem conclusive: James Healy was the first African-American priest. But it’s not quite that simple.

The 1830 census of Jones County, Georgia, helps tell part of the story. That census shows a household that consists of a single white man and a number of slaves. Despite the characterization on the census, the slaves are in fact Michael Healy’s wife and children. According to Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience, co-authored by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Michael Healy had been an Irish soldier in the British Army who deserted in the War of 1812. He eventually made his way to Georgia where he acquired land and slaves. He began a relationship with a slave named Mary Eliza Smith and had children with her. Some reports claim that Healy and Mary Eliza were married by an itinerant preacher. Such a marriage would have been illegal under Georgia law at the time.

Michael Healy acknowledged his children and was concerned for their welfare and education. He arranged for Mary Eliza and three of their sons, Hugh, Patrick, and James, to be sent north so that the boys could be educated.

The Healy sons were enrolled in a Quaker school in New York State. Sometime later, they transferred to Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. James was the valedictorian of the 1849 graduating class. While at Holy Cross, James felt the call to the priesthood.

Bjshop Healy

Bishop James Augustine Healy

Blacks were not admitted to American seminaries at the time, so James went first to a Canadian seminary in Montreal and then to the Sulpician seminary in Paris. In 1854 in Paris, he was ordained a priest of the Boston diocese. Healy spent some time as secretary to the bishop and then as an assistant pastor. In 1866, he became pastor of St James Church, the largest parish in Boston.

Father Healy was a strong spokesman for Catholics in what was then a hostile environment. His work at St James led to his being selected as bishop of Portland, Maine, in 1875.

Many parishioners apparently did not realize that the light-skinned Father Healy was of African descent. He did not particularly make that fact known. For several years, he declined to attend the Congress of Colored Catholics, expressing the view that, “We are of that Church where there is neither Gentile nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian nor Scythian, slave nor freeman, but Christ is all and in all.”

Some African-Americans and others accuse Father Healy of forfeiting his relationship with the black community by not explicitly acknowledging his background.

Father Augustine Tolton was born in 1854, the same year Bishop Healy was ordained. He was born in Ralls County, Missouri, the son of slaves. Some reports say that his father left the family to join the Union Army, but my cursory search found no evidence of that. In any event, during the Civil War, the family escaped slavery and moved to Illinois, a free state. One report claims that the slave owner, a man named Elliott, actually freed the Tolton family. An extension of that story and likely apocryphal, says that upon being freed, young Augustine was baptized in the waters of Brush Creek, with Mrs. Elliott as his godmother.

The family ended up in Quincy, Illinois. Augustine attended Catholic schools in Quincy and heard the call to Holy Orders. But black men still were not permitted to attend American seminaries. In 1880, he went to Rome to attend seminary. He was ordained in 1886 and returned to the diocese of Alton, Illinois.

Father Tolton became well-known in Illinois and was either loved or hated. At some point, he was transferred to Chicago. Some say this move can as the result of the antipathy of a white priest in the diocese.

Fr A. Tolton

In Chicago, Father Tolton initially was assigned to a basement church that later became known as St Monica’s. His reputation grew and he did not hesitate to travel and speak to various groups of Catholics. Unlike Bishop Healy, Father Tolton attended and spoke at the 1890 Congress of Colored Catholics.

Father Tolton died of heat stroke in 1897, at the age of 43.

So who is considered the first black priest in America? Some say it can’t be Bishop Healy, because he never “proclaimed” himself black. Less charitable folks say that Healy was “passing.” But by the racial rules in place then and now (although different “rules” now) Bishop Healy is properly considered the first man of African-American ancestry to be ordained a priest. Father Tolton is properly considered to be the first man with two slave parents to be ordained a priest.

But, wait! There’s a third candidate!

When I was in my 20s, my dad began the practice of sending me a calendar every year from an order of priests called the Josephites. This is an order of priests, officially known as the St. Joseph Society of the Sacred Heart, formed in 1893 to minister to African-Americans. The man given credit for leading the founding of the Josephites was Father Charles Randolph Uncles, a native of Baltimore. November 8 will mark the 152nd anniversary of Father Uncles’ birth in 1859.

Father Charles Randolph Uncles (1859-1933)

So, given what we know about Frs. Healy and Tolton, where does Father Uncles fit in? His parents, Lorenzo Uncles and Annie Marie Buchanan, both had been slaves. Charles Randolph Uncles was ordained in 1891 –after both Healy and Tolton had been ordained. But remember, it depends upon how you ask the question. Uncles was ordained in New York City. Both Healy and Tolton, though Americans, could not attend seminary in the United States because of racism and therefore were ordained outside the United States. So Father Uncles rightfully can be called the “first black priest ordained in America.” [It should be noted, speaking of the "rules" of racial identity, that Charles Uncles and his parents were described as being light enough to pass for white.]

Indeed, at the time, it was big news. Here’s the New York Times headline from December 19, 1891:
CR Unlces Ordained

The Times story noted:

The congregation gathered to witness and participate in ceremonies was more than usually large and included many of the best colored people of the city. A special reason for the presence of the latter was that the first man of their race to be ordained a priest in the United States and that he was to have that high honor bestowed upon him by the Cardinal Archbishop himself–the primate of episcopacy of the country.

Lorenzo and Annie Uncles were Catholics. They and their family attended Mass at St. Frances Xavier Church in Baltimore which was, as the New York Times put it, “a church for colored people, but from which whites were not excluded.”

As a young man, Charles was an altar boy at St. Frances Xavier. He graduated number one in his high school class. After that, he taught in the Baltimore County public schools until he was 25 years old. During this same period of time, he was being tutored by a priest from St. Joseph’s seminary (for black men only) in Baltimore. Finally in 1883, Charles Uncles went to St. Hyacinthe College in Quebec, graduating in 1888. Back in Baltimore he then entered St. Joseph’s seminary. But he applied to attend classes at St. Mary’s Seminary which was then for white men. The faculty of St. Mary’s put the matter to a vote of the seminarians. They were unanimously in favor of admitting Charles Uncles. And so it was that three years later, he was ordained a priest. He began teaching at the Epiphany Apostolic College, which was then located in Baltimore. In 1925, the college moved to New Windsor, New York, and Father Uncles moved also.

He died on July 20, 1933 at the college, and is buried there.

To put this subject in perspective, the following might be said:

1. James Augustine Healy (1875-1900), ordained in Paris in 1854 for the Diocese of Boston, was the first priest and the first bishop of African ancestry in the United States.

2. Augustine Tolton (1854-1897), ordained in Paris in 1886 for the Diocese of Alton, Illinois, was the first priest of acknowledged African slave ancestry in the United States.

3.  Charles Randolph Uncles (1859-1933), ordained in Baltimore in 1891 for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, was the first priest of African ancestry to be ordained in the United States.

[Acknowledgements Donna Pointkouski directed me to a biography of Father Tolton, From Slave to Priest, which is available on Later I heard from Sabrina A. Penn, third grand-niece of Father Tolton's. She's written a book about him called A Place for My Children, which is available at]

Feast Day: Saint Elizabeth

In the Roman Catholic Church today (November 5th) is the feast day of Saint Elizabeth (in the Greek Church it is celebrated on September 8th). Elizabeth was born in 1st Century, BC, and died in 1st Century AD.

Not much is known about Elizabeth, she was a descendant of the Old Testament patriarch, Aaron, the wife of Zachary, a temple priest, and most famously, the mother of Saint John the Baptist, with whom she became pregnant very late in life, and a kinswoman of the Blessed Virgin Mary—the mother of Jesus. She appears in the Gospel of Luke, where she is described as “righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly,” and is the Elizabeth that Mary visited soon after the Annunciation. Described in the Gospel of Luke as “righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly,” She was the Elizabeth that Mary visited soon after the Annunciation. Elizabeth’s salutation is recorded as: “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And how have I deserved that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, the moment that the sound of thy greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who has believed, because the things promised her by the Lord shall be accomplished.” (Source: “Lives of Saints”, Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.).

Elizabeth is commonly depicted in artwork and images as an elderly woman holding the infant John the Baptist, and as a pregnant woman with the Virgin Mary.

Source: Accessed 1 November 2011

She is the patron saint of expectant mothers/pregnant women and of the Diocese of Fulda, Germany.

I wanted to write a brief post about Elizabeth because my name, Lisa, is a diminutive form of the name which comes from “Elisabet,” the Greek form of the Hebrew name “Elisheva” meaning “my god is an oath” or perhaps “my God is abundance.” (See Behind the Name for more information). My paternal grandmother was named Elizabeth—originally Erzsébet (Hungarian), or Alžbeta (Slovak), and one aunt I was very close with was also named Elizabeth (nicknamed “Betty” and for short, I called her “Auntie B”). The name has been passed down in one form or another in my family for several generations.

For more information:
Catholic Encyclopedia (New Advent)
Catholic Online
For All The Saints, by Katherine Rabenstein

National Black Catholic History Month: St. Martin de Porres

I am just a poor mulatto–sell me.

Saint Martin de Porres, upon learning of the financial hardships facing his Dominican priory.

Today, November 3, is the feast day of St. Martin de Porres. Born in Lima Peru, in 1579, he died on this date in 1639. He was canonized by Pope John XXIII in 1962. He is recognized as the first black canonized saint in the Western Hemisphere. He was a mulatto Dominican brother. He is among other things, the

St Martin de Porres "Saint of the Broom"

patron saint of barbers, and the patron saint of the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi, Mississippi. Known also as St. Martin of Charity because of his work among the poor, and “the Saint of the broom” because of his devotion to work. His mother, a free woman of color when he was born, had been a slave; his father was a Spanish merchant.

At the age of ten, when his mother could not support him, Martin was apprenticed to a surgeon-barber. It was during this time that he learned to care for the sick and others. He greatly enjoyed the work.

Later, he became a servant at Lima’s Dominican priory. He chose at a young age to live a life of poverty, piety, and austerity while serving others. He spent hours at night in prayer. It is said that one night as Martin prayed before the Blessed Sacrament, the step of the altar on which he was kneeling caught fire. He remained where he was, seemingly oblivious to the conflagration.

Martin felt the call to the Dominican order; however, the order at the time had a rule that “no black person may be received to the holy habit or profession of our order.” Martin continued to work at the priory, displaying patience and compassion with the sick.

Soon miracles were being attributed to Martin. It was said that he could cure the seriously ill with just a cup of water.

He is said to have passed through locked doors to care for the ill. Though he never left Lima, he was seen elsewhere, in Mexico, Africa, China, and Japan.

In Lima, Martin de Porres built an orphanage and school. A vegetarian, he also cared for animals and founded a shelter for dogs and cats.

Impressed by Martin’s piety and the miracles, the Dominicans dropped their racial restrictions and welcomed him fully into the order.

During his lifetime, Martin was a close friend of both St John Macias and St Rose of Lima.

Martin de Porres died in Lima, Peru, on November 3, 1639. He was beatified in 1837 by Pope Gregory XVI and canonized in 1962 by Pope John XXIII. In addition to being the patron saint of barbers, he is the patron saint of mixed-race people and all those seeking interracial harmony.

Martin de Porres is widely revered throughout the world, but has been especially embraced by the African-American Catholic community. In 1936, the Southern Dominican Province of the USA built the St Martin de Porres Shrine in South Carolina, along with a school and a church to serve the African-American community. Now known as the St Martin de Porres Shrine and Institute, the establishment was relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, in 2001.

November is National Black Catholic History Month

Daniel Rudd, James Augustine Healy, Elisabeth Clarisse Lange, Augustus Tolton, Pierre Toussaint are among the names that resonate for Black Catholics.”

Informed estimates place the number of Catholics of African descent in America at about 3% of the total Catholic population of the United States. Within the worldwide Church itself, recent data show that persons of African descent comprise nearly 25% of all Catholics.

With so few black American Catholics, it’s a wonder that there’s any significant national black Catholic history to celebrate. But there is; oh, there is!

I am a second generation African-American Catholic. Both of my parents were converts. On the other hand, my wife traces her Catholic roots at least to 1722 and an unbroken direct line of descent ever since.

National Black Catholic History Month was first proclaimed in 1990 by the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus (NBCCC) to honor and celebrate the achievements and legacies of black American Catholics. The NBCCC is one of several groups that make up the National Black Catholic Congress. Among the others are The African-American Bishops of the United States, The National Black Sisters Conference, The National Association of Black Catholic Administrators, The Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver, the National Black Seminarians Association, and the Institute for Black Catholic Studies, which is located at Xavier University in New Orleans.

It was a thrill for me to learn about black Catholics in America. While I was growing up in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, I never saw a black priest. I was shocked when one day my father gave me a copy of the Josephite magazine, which is published by the Josephite Brothers, originally a “black” (now the say “interracial” order of religious men, including priests). In fact, I was over 40 years old before I encountered a black priest. I’d met a Chinese-American priest when I was about 20.

Again, my wife’s experience was different. Growing up in the very Catholic town of St Louis, she always saw the multiple ethnicities of Catholicism, and encountered a black priest in elementary school. But when she entered the Army as a second lieutenant in 1974, being black and Catholic became an administrative nightmare. The personnel folks apparently had a manual that said “Black= Baptist,” or at least “Black ≠ Catholic.” Her dogtags and records were changed several times to “White/Catholic” or “Black/Baptist.” [May be it was just the Army. . . I had no such problem when I entered the Air Force in 1972!]

I think the first time I ever met another black Catholic who was not in my family was in the Air Force in 1972 when I met my friend Dave Ross.

At any rate, there is a lot of black Catholic history, and we’ll be bringing some of it to you here at The Catholic Gene during this month. Let’s start with a timeline of Catholic Africana.

AD 40 The Ethiopian Eunuch is baptized by Philip the Deacon (Acts 8:26-40), bring the first black convert to Christianity.

189 St Victor I became first Pope from Africa.

311 St Melchiades becomes second Pope from Africa.

354 St Augustine is born in Africa

492 St Gelasius becomes third (and so far, last) Pope from Africa.

1491 King Nzinga-a-Nkuwu Mbemba (Afonso the Good) of the Kongo and his subjects made their profession of faith.

1518 King Nzinga’s son, Henrique, is consecrated the Titular Bishop of Utica by Pope Leo X, becoming the first native bishop of West Africa.

1526 St Benedict the Moor is born.

1527 Estevanico becomes first African to set foot in future United States.

1565 Town of St Augustine, Florida, is founded. Black Catholics arrive in Florida.

1579 St Martin de Porres is born.

1500s-1800s Transatlantic Slave Trade thrives.

European explorers bring Africans to Western hemisphere.

1829  Mother Mary Lange founds the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an order for religious women of color in Baltimore.

1854 Daniel Rudd, founder of National Black Catholic Congress, is born a slave in Kentucky.

1854 James Augustine Healy, first African-American priest (or was he? See upcoming post) is ordained.

1869 St Josephine Bakhita is born in Darfur (Sudan);sold into slavery at age 6.

1886 Augustus Tolton, said to be first African-American priest (but was he really? See upcoming post), is ordained.

1889 Daniel Rudd convenes first National Black Catholic Congress.

The twentieth century brought  opportunities and challenges for black Catholics in America. But first, there was the slavery issue.

Tomorrow: St Martin de Porres

For All the Saints

Of course some might argue (and do argue) that all you need is Jesus. And that’s true: Jesus is everything, and the saints understood this more than anyone. But God in his wisdom has also given us these companions of Jesus to accompany us along the way, so why not accept the gift of their friendship and encouragement? ~ James Martin, SJ, My Life with the Saints

On November 1 we celebrate the Feast of All Saints.  When we hear the word “saint” we often think of someone who is perfect.  But how can we strive to be perfect?  We sometimes forget that saints were human, and many of our favorites had qualities that are all too familiar – a wry sense of humor, a quick anger, or michevious streak.  But in the end these humans put God first in their lives and overcame the human weaknesses of ordinary men and women to live extraordinary lives in service to God and others. It is through the example of such men and women that we can strive to become better people.

To celebrate All Saints Day, The Catholic Gene authors reveal their “favorite” saints:

All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”  ~ St. Francis of Assisi

When I was nine years old, most of those in my fourth grade class, myself included, were confirmed in our local parish church. During our preparation for confirmation, we were instructed to select the name of a saint for a confirmation name. My parents directed me to a leather-bound, gilt-edged volume entitled “Lives of the Saints.” I had thumbed through this book many times before but, this time, I looked through the pages with a purpose. Throughout my life, I have felt a special connection with the natural world and, while looking through “Lives of the Saints”, I noticed that St. Francis of Assisi was depicted with birds on his shoulders and small animals crowded at his feet.  Because of St. Francis’ relationship with the wild creatures of the earth, I decided to choose the name Francis as my confirmation name. I told my parents. My father’s eyes grew large and a grin spread across his face. I suddenly realized that I had unknowingly chosen my father’s own given name for my confirmation name! Years passed, I grew older, and my connection with nature increased. I studied Biology and Chemistry in college and worked as a camp counselor during the summers. Finally, I was offered my first real job in my chosen profession. The offer came from San Francisco, the city of St. Francis, and the place I have called home ever since. It’s small wonder that St. Francis of Assisi is my favorite saint! ~ Stephen Danko

Especially abundant were the gifts she bestowed on the naked and unprotected poor. To some she gave money, to others an ample supply of clothing; she liberated some from imprisonment, or from the bitter servitude of the mines; others she delivered from unjust oppression, and others again, she restored from exile. ~ Eusebius on St. Helena in The Life of Constantine

Saint Helena of Constantinople is not necessarily my “favorite” saint, but I’ve decided to write about her since I chose my Helena as my confirmation name because I wanted to be different and select a name that was a little unusual.  When I learned about St. Helena I found her back story quite interesting.

Saint Helena (Latin: Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta) is also known as Saint Helen, Helena Augusta or Helena of Constantinople.  She was born about the middle of the third century, possibly in Drepanum (later known as Helenopolis) on the Nicomedian Gulf.  Helena was the consort of Emperor Constantius, and is best known for being the mother of Emperor Constantine I.

One of our assignments for confirmation class was to learn something about the saint whose name we were choosing.  In addition to being the mother of any emperor (I thought that was pretty cool), St. Helena is traditionally credited with finding the relics of the True Cross, (you’ll see her represented with these in various Christian iconography). She also had her image on a coin (also pretty cool). What I liked best about Helena is that she has been described as  “a woman of humble extraction but remarkable character and unusual ability.”

Helena died ca. 330 and is recognized in the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Churches, Oriental Orthodoxy, the Lutheran Church and Anglican Communion. In the Roman Catholic Church, St. Helena’s feast day is celebrated on August 18th.  There is a shrine to Saint Helena in St. Peter’s Basilica, and her patronages include: archaeologists, converts, difficult marriages, divorced people, empresses, and Saint Helena Island (selected as the place of exile for Napoleon Bonaparte). As an aside, I didn’t know it at the time but one of my great-grandmothers was named Helena, so perhaps it was more than just coincidence that I was drawn to this name and this saint. ~ Lisa Alzo

Act as if everything depended on you; trust as if everything depended on God. ~ St. Ignatius of Loyola

When I asked the authors to write a paragraph on their favorite saint, I was debating between two favorites, and neither was St. Ignatius of Loyola.  But as I thought about my life with the saints, I realized he’s been watching over me far longer than I’ve known about him! In college, I chose the saying ad maiorem Dei gloriam for my yearbook motto: For the greater glory of God.  I knew it was the motto of the Jesuits, and I might have known that the order was founded by St. Ignatius.  But I never met a Jesuit in my sixteen years of Catholic education, so that fact didn’t mean much to me – I just liked the sentiment. Fast forward many years. A few years ago, I learned about St. Ignatius and what is called “Ignatian Spirituality” – and I felt like I found a new friend who thinks like I do.  For the first time, I learned about a form of “imaginative prayer” taught by St. Ignatius in which you immerse yourself in the gospels using all of your senses. As a creative person, this form of prayer suits me just fine. I’ve since learned more about St. Ignatius’ life. Before his conversion, he was a vain ladies’ man, a soldier, and he even had a police record! After his conversion, he surrendered himself completely to God’s will.  He still has a lot to teach me about prayer, but I’m glad I have a companion to help me learn what “to the greater glory of God” really means. ~ Donna Pointkouski

Begin now to be what you will be hereafter. ~ St. Jerome

As a blogger on Catholic Gene – you have got to love St. Jerome. I was first introduced to St. Jerome in the courtyard of the Church of the Nativity and Church of St. Catherine in Bethlehem on the West Bank where his statue looms large.  He is best known for his translation of the Bible into Latin.  It was in Bethlehem that Jerome translated most the books of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin, and revised his translation of the Psalms using the Hebrew texts.  He led a life of incessant activity in literary production  He is the patron saint of archaeologists, archivists, biblical scholars, librarians, students, and translators. ~ Bernie Gracy

Some Pharisees were also sent. They asked him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie. ~ John 1: 24-27

I haven’t gone about my daily life with a favorite saint in my pocket, but I do think that St. John the Baptist is a comfortable choice for a born and bred Baptist. In Sunday School we studied illustrations of a long-haired, bearded John baptizing converts in the river, running nearly naked through the desert, and eating bugs and honey. I feel more of a connection to St. John than, say, St. Theresa of Avila, patron saint of headache sufferers and Spanish Catholic Writers; or St. Thomas More, patron saint of court clerks. I do wish, however, that St. John had not been beheaded. So gruesome. ~ Denise Levenick

The devil strains every nerve to secure the souls which belong to Christ. We should not grudge our toil in wresting them from Satan and giving them back to God. ~ St. Sebastian

I would have to say that St Sebastian is my favorite saint. As a child growing up, I attended St Sebastian Catholic Church (Dearborn Heights, Michigan) with my family and I have many fond memories of that parish. St Sebastian is the saint that is often depicted as tied to a column and pierced with arrows. He was a soldier in the Roman army back in the third century and in spite of the multiple arrow wounds he suffered when he was ordered killed by his superiors (for being a Christian) he survived. This was quite a testament to his physical fitness and good health. It is for this reason that St Sebastian is the patron saint of soldiers and athletes. The next time you’re watching your favorite football team in action or a family member enters the military service, send up a prayer to St Sebastian! ~ Jasia

St Edmund the Martyr (841-869) was king of East Anglia in his 20s when the Danish attacked. He led his forces bravely in battle but was captured by the Great Danish Heathen Army. The Danes demanded that Edmund renounce his Christianity. He refused. The Danish commander then ordered him stripped and tied to a tree. In The Little Lives of the Saints (1904), the Rev. Percy Dearmer tells how Edmund died:

The [Danish] bows were bent, and the arrows flew through the air, first one and then another; and at each shot a roar of admiration went up. For the object of the bowmen was to see how many times they could touch their victim without killing him. The arrows stuck in him here and there as if at random, till his poor body looked like the body of a hedgehog; but never an arrow touched his head or his heart, or any mortal place.

Far away in the recesses of the forest the frightened peasants heard the shouts and cheers, and crept behind the trees, wondering what new woe had befallen. And their young king was dying alone, his one companion, Bishop Humbert watching him from the place where he too lay bound. Even the wild animals, whom Edmund had always loved, fled from the place, rabbits and wild cats scampering away together, and an old grey wolf slunk inoffensively by their side, crying Heugh! Heugh!

At last the Danes struck off Edmund’s head; and, seizing it in derision, they threw it far into the depths of the forest. The good bishop, who had once anointed that young head and laid the golden crown upon it, saw it now decked with the crown of martyrdom, which is a diadem so glorious that no bishop can give it and no prince can take it away. In a few moments more that crown was given to Humbert too, and he went to join his brave king in the home of the saints.

[The Danes soon left the area, but the Angles left behind could not find King Edmund's body.] So they searched through a whole morning, and cried through the trees and bushes to each other. At last they heard a deep voice calling to them– “Here, here!”

They rushed to the place whence the sound came, and lo! there was an old grey wolf with his great muzzle lifted in the air as he bayed–“Heugh, Heugh! Here, Here!” And between his paws lay the head of Saint Edmund, unharmed.

He was interred into place now known as Bury St. Edmunds, a midsized city in the English county of Suffolk. Much of what is known of him is legend or mythology. However, Edmund is seen as the patron saint of among others, torture victims, the Roman Catholic diocese of East Anglia, the English county of Suffolk, and wolves. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have considered him patron saint of England. The Anglican Communion also considers him a saint. ~ Craig Manson

Not always fall of leaf, nor ever spring,
No endless night, yet not eternal day;
The saddest birds a season find to sing,
The roughest storm a calm may soon allay.
Thus, with succeeding turns, God tempereth all,
That man may hope to rise, yet fear to fall.
~ St. Robert Southwell in his poem Times Go by Turns

As a mother with many children, it is often difficult for me to find the time and place to write in the midst of the childsound and busy-ness of my household. I’ve learned to write at strange times (it’s quietest from 2:00 to 5:00 a.m.), in funny places (retreating to my quiet closet for a moment to write down a thought), and in brief, easily-finishable formats. No full-length novel for me! I’ve found my calling in blog posts and my first writing love: poetry.

The difficulties I face, however, are nothing compared to those confronted by one of my very favorite poets – a 16th-century priest of Elizabethan England whose bravery and poetic talent continue to inspire me. St. Robert Southwell’s writing time was squeezed into a life of hiding as he was hunted by Queen Elizabeth’s pursuivants, and during his imprisonment after he was arrested for his crime: being a Catholic priest. In fact, most of his poetry was written during 2 ½ years of solitary confinement in the Tower of London between episodes of torture.

It was a dire time in England for Catholics. Although the faith had been outlawed, Robert was raised Catholic by his mother (despite his father’s conversion to Protestantism to conform to the will of the queen, whom he served as courtier). Young Robert sought training at Douai and Rome, and was admitted into the Jesuit order at the age of 16, returning at 24 to serve the Catholic faithful of England as an undercover priest. He moved from place to place administering the sacraments to Catholics, while being pursued by agents of the queen. He was executed at the age of 34 after many months of horrible suffering.

The poetry of St. Robert Southwell, though not large enough in quantity to rank him among the great British poets, has been revered and enjoyed by many generations. As C.S. Lewis said, “We never read him without wondering why we do not read him more.” In fact, evidence suggests that even Shakespeare read and admired the poet’s work and was probably acquainted with him. Shakespeare’s contemporary, Ben Jonson commented that he would have readily forfeited many of his own poems to have written The Burning Babe, one of Southwell’s most famous works.  St. Robert Southwell was canonized in 1970 as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales whose feast day we celebrate on October 25. ~ Lisa / Smallest Leaf

That Thou wilt come to our aid through the intercession of the Holy Helpers, We beseech Thee, hear us.~ excerpt from the Litany in Honor of the Fourteen Holy Helpers

I am going to pick a posse of saints – the 14 Holy Helpers (see below for who’s who). A prayer sent to the collective covers me for the plague and headaches and most importantly sudden death. ~ Sheri Fenley

Name (Alternate) ~ Feast day ~ Patronage

  1. Agathius (Acacius) – May 8 – Against headache
  2. Barbara – Dec 4 – Against fever and sudden death
  3. Blaise (Blase, Blasius) – Feb 3 -Against illness of the throat and for protection of domestic animals
  4. Catherine of Alexandria – Nov 25 – Against sudden death
  5. Christopher (Christophorus) – Jul 25 – Against bubonic plague and dangers while traveling
  6. Cyriacus – Aug 8 – Against temptation on the death-bed
  7. Denis (Dionysius) – Oct 9 – Against headache
  8. Erasmus (Elmo) – Jun 2 – Against intestinal ailments
  9. Eustace (Eustachius, Eustathius) – Sep 20 – Against family discord
  10. George (Georgius) – Apr 23 – For the health of domestic animals
  11. Giles (Aegidius) – Sep 1 – Against plague, for a good confession, and for cripples, beggars and blacksmiths
  12. Margaret of Antioch – Jul 20 – During childbirth, and escape from devils
  13. Pantaleon (Panteleimon) – Jul 27 – For physicians, and against cancer & tuberculosis
  14. Vitus (Guy) – Jun 15 – Against epilepsy, lightning and for protection of domestic animals

Tell us about your favorite saint in the comments! All the saints, pray for us!


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