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