This week is Catholic Schools Week. And February is Black History Month. This presents us with a great opportunity to explore some issues common to both.
African-Americans and Catholic schools have had a mutually enriching experience in America. But the relationship has not been without its bumps. I’ve chosen a unique microcosm by which to explore this relationship: the education of the French Negroes of Illinois.
Randolph County, Illinois, is situated just east of St. Louis on the bank of the Mississippi River. It is one of Illinois’ first two counties, the other being St. Clair County, just to the north. Randolph County contains such historic towns as Kaskaskia, Sparta, Chester (the county seat), and Prairie du Rocher.
At Prairie du Rocher, the first settlement was Fort Chartres in about 1721. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church was established there about the same time. Then, in 1722, Philip Francois Renault, acting on behalf of King Louis XV, arrived in the area to explore for gold and silver. On his way to the Illinois country, Renault had stopped at Santo Domingo to purchase 500 slaves to do the heavy lifting of his precious metals exploration.
Renault and his expedition spent 20 years looking for gold and silver and finding none. He did however find lead which is still mined to this day in eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois. In 1742, Renault departed the Illinois country and headed back to France. He left behind the slaves and their descendants.
The African-descended people Renault left in the Illinois country were largely Roman Catholic, of course, because of their French cultural orientation.
It is said that the black people who lived in Randolph County, Illinois, and Ste. Genevieve County, Missouri, over the next 150 years were descendants of these slaves.
Writing in the local diocesan publication The Messenger in 1984, Father Theodore Siekmann, former pastor of St. Joseph parish at Prairie du Rocher, observed:
Philip Renault and other French Catholics of his day aimed to be humane. They did provide for the basic needs of these people. They respected their dignity as children of God, endowed with immortal souls, and deserving of spiritual care and attention.
One of the regarded values of the French Catholics was education. Unlike the English and Scots-Irish slaveholders in North America, the French Catholics had no issue with educating their slaves. Father Siekmann writes, “the black Catholics in Prairie du Rocher had always attended Mass and received the sacraments along with the white people on an amicable basis. Indeed two of the black girls became Religious sisters, and were a credit to their religious institutes.” These two girls were Emma Micheau and her aunt, Adelaide Francis Micheau, both of whom joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence after a basic education in the Catholic school at Prairie du Rocher. “Addie” became Sister Celestine and Emma was Sister Mary Philomena.
Much of the history of the Catholic school at Prairie du Rocher can be pieced together from Catholic directories, Illinois state documents, oral history provided by the now-elderly last generation of French Negroes to actually reside in Prairie du Rocher, and an exchange of letters between Sister Mary Philomena and a sister of one of the orders which taught at the school.
One very useful source is the Sadlier’s Catholic Directory, Almanac and Ordo (an “ordo” is “a list of offices and feasts of the Roman Catholic Church for each day of the year.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ordo).
Sadlier’s tells us that from 1870 to about 1896, the Catholic school-age population in Prairie du Rocher fluctuated between 75 students in 1870 to a peak of 150 pupils in 1896. Sadlier’s also indicates that during most of this period, the church and the school in Prairie du Rocher were under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Alton, Illinois. In 1887, the Diocese of Belleville was established and Catholic institutions in Randolph County came within its jurisdiction.
According to Sadlier’s, during most of this time, the instruction was conducted by a “secular” teacher. In 1896, however, the Sisters of St. Dominic began to lead the instruction at the school in Prairie du Rocher.
November is National Black Catholic History Month.
Many Americans would have found antebellum Louisiana to be exotic place, with its French and Spanish influenced culture. Other southern Americans most likely would have been surprised that Louisiana’s tolerance of the nearly equality of les gens de couleur libres [free people of color]. But the Anglo-Saxon Protestants who prevailed in America would’ve been positively shocked at the practice of plaçage. This was a cultural phenomenon in which white men (usually of wealth and sometimes legally married to a white woman) entered into de facto marriages with free women of color.
These relationships produced children who were often openly acknowledged by their fathers and sometimes by the legal wife of the father.
In 1812, Henrietta Delille was born into such an arrangement. Her father, Jean Baptiste Delille-Sarpy, was a well-to-do white man, unmarried, who had a plaçage relationship with Marie Josef Dias, a free woman of color.
Henrietta’s mother, Marie, envisioned a life similar to her own for her daughter. But Henrietta had ideas of her own. She rejected the plaçage lifestyle, which cost her her relationship with her mother as well as monetary fortune. And although like most of her family, her complexion was light enough that she could have passed for white in Louisiana’s stratified racial society, she declined to do so, proclaiming herself a free woman of color.
As to the latter matter, race and color, Henrietta’s principles worked against her immediate interests. Because she was nonwhite by her own admission, the very devout Henrietta was denied entrance as a postulant by both the Ursulines and the Carmelites.
Under the tutelage of Sister Marthe Fortier of Dames Hospitalières, 14-year-old Henrietta began a ministry serving the poor, black, white, and mixed race, in the streets of New Orleans.
I believe in God. I hope in God. I love God.
I want to live and die for God.
Prayer of Venerable Mother Henriette Delille
After her parents died Henrietta used her inheritance to buy a house which she used as a school to teach religion to free blacks and poor whites. She was assisted in this regard by a French immigrant priest, Père Etienne Rousselon, and her friend, Juliette Gaudin. Later, another free woman of color, Josephine Charles, join in the effort.
With the help of Father Rousselon, the women eventually were recognized as a religious order of the Catholic Church. They originally called themselves the Sisters of the Presentation, but later changed the name of the order to Sisters of the Holy Family.
The Sisters of the Holy Family operated parochial schools and did other charitable work. By the middle of the last century, their membership numbered over 400. Today, although there are only about 200 Sisters of the Holy Family,the order continues its work. The sisters run schools and nursing homes in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, California, and the District of Columbia. They also do charitable work in Belize.
The Sisters of the Holy Family opened a cause for canonization of Mother Delille in 1989. In 2010 with the documentation of one miracle ascribed to Mother Delille, Pope Benedict XVI declared her “venerable.” the church’s investigation continues and with the documentation of another miracle she may be declared beatified. The process to formal recognition of sainthood can be lengthy. But many believe that Henrietta Delille will become the first US-born person of African descent to be canonized.
There is some controversy surrounding the potential canonization of Henrietta Delille. One issue is that she was a slave owner. She owned one slave, a woman named Betsy, whom she freed in her will. The other issue springs from the poisonous well of racism.
There are some who object to characterization of Venerable Mother Delille as the first “African-American” or black potential saint. They claim that she was not a black woman but a “Creole.”
The term Creole with respect to people in Louisiana has several divergent meanings, all of which arise from the racialist need to classify people. It was the same “need” that led to the so-called “one drop rule.” Under that rule, Henrietta Delille is certainly a black woman. In any event, she self-identified as “nonwhite.”
This dispute illustrates our continuing human failure to see life the way God wants us to see it. It illustrates as well the conundrum of “race” in America. As Catholics we all want to celebrate the holy life of a good person. On the other hand, tucked into our little human-defined niches, we don’t want others to take what we believe is ours. I know that the ways of God are but a mystery to us but somehow I feel certain that in welcoming Henrietta Delille to his kingdom he didn’t turn around account and see how many blacks, whites or Creoles were already there.
C. Davis, Henriette Delille, Servant of Slaves, Witness to the Poor,” (Sisters of the Holy Family,New Orleans 2004)
Answers.com: Henriette Delille (2012) http://www.answers.com/topic/henriette-delille
National Black Catholic Congress, Mother Henrietta Delille, http://www.nbccongress.org/black-catholics/mother-henriette-delille-famous-blacks.asp
An almost sinful obsession of mine (other than genealogy) a few years ago was watching Gunsmoke [formerly on TVLand, most weekends; also early mornings during the week.] Some weekends, it seemed as if the time passed and little got done except hours of Gunsmoke. Let me tell you about one of those days.
At the first strains of the compelling theme music of the day’s first episode, I could feel myself being drawn in. By the time George “Smokey the Bear” Walsh had solemnly and ritualistically intoned, “Gunsmoke . . . starring James Arness as Matt Dillon,” I was captured. To mitigate the situation, I tried to think of some genealogical angles to Matt Dillion, Festus, Doc, and Kitty that I could blog about. I was still pondering that when the fifth episode of the day began. An obviously very ill woman was being tended by three black nuns. The woman’s two children were nearby. The nuns agreed to see that the children made it to the farm their father was supposed to be preparing for the family near Dodge City [Episode #14, Season 15; first aired 12/29/1969]. Having already seen four episodes that morning, I was actually about to turn the television off and get down to some real business when
one of the nuns mentioned that they were members of the “Oblate Sisters of Providence.”
I sat back down to watch the rest of the show.
[The children’s father (Jack Elam, as despicable as ever in his Gunsmoke recurring role as Pack Landers!) turns out to be a drunk layabout and petty criminal who offers to help the nuns build a school so as to get his hands on the funds donated for that purpose. It’s a sort of bizarro version of Lilies of the Field]1, 2.
What re-captured my attention was the mention of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, which is an actual order of Roman Catholic nuns headquartered in Baltimore. Founded in 1829, it was the first religious order for African-American women. The first Superior General, Mother Mary Lange, started the order for the benefit of Haitian immigrants. The order has concentrated on child development and education.
On the 1920 federal census for Baltimore, there is a two page section for the St Francis Convent and Orphanage, operated by the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Listed in that section is 16 year old Emma Micheau, born in llinois. She’s the last and youngest “assistant inmate” listed before several boarders ranging from 38 to 94 years old, and then the orphans. “Assistant Inmate” appears to have been the description given to all the nuns and novitiates except the “Superior General” of the Order, who in 1920 was the Reverend Mother “M. Frances.”
Emma Micheau was the daughter of Marshall and Sophronia Micheau of Prairie du Rocher, Illinois. Marshall Emmanuel Micheau was the son of George Micheau, who had been born in Missouri in about 1852 and George’s wife, Mary Emma Roy, born in Prairie du Rocher in 1855. George was one of five sons of George [1813-1907] and Margret [1834-?] Micheau.
As a religious, Emma was known as Sister Philomena. After her initial stay in Baltimore, she returned to Missouri and later became the Superior at St Frances Girls School in Normandy, Missouri.
In taking Holy Orders, Emma Micheau was following the example set by her aunt, Adelaide (“Addie”) Micheau, who was the daughter of George and Mary Emma Micheau. Addie, born in 1885, became Sister Celestine, OSP, and was resident at the Order’s mission school in St Louis and later, at the Normandy, Missouri, orphanage.
Sister Celestine was my wife’s first cousin once removed and Sister Philomena was my wife’s great-aunt.
Mother Mary Philomena (nee Emma Mary Micheau)
Research Tip: The Oblate Sisters of Providence maintains an Archives and Special Collections Library at the Our Lady of Mount Providence Convent in Baltimore, Maryland. The collection is accessible by appointment only between the hours of 9am and 4pm Monday through Friday. Photocopying and photograph scanning services are available. Some of these records contain the names of orphans and students who resided at the various OSP facilities. Many other religious orders have similar archives.
A tip to search for Catholic religious persons is to use the words “father,” “mother,” “brother, or “sister” as either a first or last name. For example, if you search the 1850 census for Maryland for “sister” as a first name, you come up with about 185 members of the Sisters of Charity in Frederick and Baltimore. Catholic dioceses and archdioceses also have records of their personnel as well as worshippers. For more information on Catholic genealogical records, see the guide at http://home.att.net/~Local_Catholic/.
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.
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.
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.
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.]
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 Amazon.com. 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 http://www.publishersgraphicsbookstore.com/]