10 Reasons to be Thankful for our Catholic Family History

Eucharist (Greek – εὐχαριστία): an action of thanksgiving to God

As genealogists we have much to be thankful for.  The search for our ancestral history often helps to put our own lives into perspective: as we discover the hardships and sorrows that plagued earlier generations, our own can seem much easier to bear.

The Catholic genealogist has even more reasons to be thankful.  At Donna Pointkouski’s suggestion, I’ve made a list of the things that I most appreciate about my Catholic family history.  From the tangible (ancestral photographs, sacramentals, Catholic cemeteries), to the intangible (connections with distant cousins, inspiration provided by the saints), we have a bountiful harvest of gifts before us.  As you observe the Thanksgiving holiday this week, I hope you’ll join with me in celebrating the many blessings of Catholic genealogy. Here are my top ten:

Photographs of family members receiving the sacraments at important milestones in their lives. If it weren’t for her Baptism and First Communion photos, I would have no childhood pictures of my grandmother. I’m very thankful that someone took the time to document those important moments in her life so that I could see her as a child. (She is pictured at left with her cousins and other St. Francis de Sales parish First Communicants in Mount Carbon, Pennsylvania in 1922.)

Sacramentals and holy objects become family treasures when passed down from generation to generation. There is something special about seeing an ancestor’s crucifix on the wall of your own home, holding a great-grandmother’s Rosary, or dressing a new baby in the Baptismal gown that was worn by other newborns in the family tree.

Family Bibles – part family treasure, part genealogical record – are one of every family historian’s most sought after ancestral relics. I was thrilled this year to have a cousin share with me the Douay-Rheims Catholic family Bible in his possession which had belonged to my 3rd great-grandmother, Ann Cowhey. As a genealogist, I was thrilled to see the names and dates recorded on its pages. As a Catholic, it was inspiring to hold the actual Bible owned by my 3rd great-grandmother. I can imagine it sitting in her home throughout the 19th century as she raised her family and relied on her faith to sustain her through hard times.

Sacramental registers allow us to peek into the rites of passage of our Catholic ancestors – Baptism, Matrimony, even Holy Orders. Death registers were also often kept by the Catholic church. In many countries Catholic church registers existed long before any form of civil vital records – or the church records were the civil records (as was the case in Hungary until 1895).  I had a surprise when I discovered my Hungarian-born grandfather’s Baptism register and learned that his birthday was different than the one he had always celebrated!

Catholic cemeteries are the final resting places of many of the Catholic ancestors whose names and stories we learn through our search for family history. There is nothing like walking through a cemetery in search of your ancestors, and coming upon a familiar name on a gravestone. I couldn’t help but tear up during a summer visit to the Irish Catholic St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Pottsville, Pennsylvania (shown here) when I discovered the grave of the daughter of my immigrant ancestors who had first settled in the area in the 19th century.  It was moving to stand and pray for her soul where her family had stood as they laid her to rest a century and a half before.

Our ancestors’ places of worship were the fields where the seeds of faith that would someday be passed down to us were first sown.  The Catholic church where several of my children were baptized has just been renovated for the third time in several decades, completely altering the interior of the building.  Yet, the parish where my great-great-grandparents worshipped in Legrad, Croatia is still very much the same as it was in their day.  I haven’t yet visited, but I’m sure I will feel right at home when I finally make the journey to the 300-year-old village church that was host to so many of my family’s special sacramental celebrations.

The fascinating history of the Catholic Church cannot help but be enthralling reading to every Catholic interested in their own family’s story as it played out against the background of history.  The struggles of the Catholic Church in Ireland against the might of the British crown figured largely within the lives of many generations of my Irish family tree.  The strength of the Hungarian and Slavic Catholics as they held up against Turkish occupation kept Europe Catholic and gave my family an inspiring legacy of faith.  If you have Catholic ancestors, chances are that they played a role in or were witnesses to events in Catholic history that read to us today like the stuff of legends.

The saints are the host of holy people that have preceded us in life and now reside in Heaven as the Church Triumphant.  We, the Church Militant, can take inspiration from their lives and ask for their intercession as we strive to join them one day.  We find inspiration in their stories, celebrate their feast days, and name our children after them.  They are like an extended family tree!

A connection to distant cousins is sometimes difficult to establlish when they live in other countries, have different ethnic and cultural traditions, and speak a foreign language. Our shared Catholic faith has allowed me to find common ground with some members of my extended family in Croatia who are parishioners of my family’s ancestral church. Despite language barriers and an ocean separating us, we have found common ground in the age-old faith of our ancestors.

And the #1 reason to be thankful for our Catholic family history:

The legacy of our beautiful Catholic faith is perhaps the greatest family treasure that a Catholic genealogist can discover. It is a spiritual gift that has been passed down to us, and we are privileged to share it with coming generations.

In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
– Saint Paul (I Thessalonians 5:18)

If you share an interest in Catholic family history and you enjoyed reading this article, please take a moment to write a comment including the things that you are thankful for.  Happy Thanksgiving!

St Cecilia and My Cecilia

My Godmother was my favorite aunt. Cecilia Laska was born November 18, 1912 in Detroit, Michigan. She always went by, “Ceily”, so to me she was “Auntie Ceily”. She was closest in age to my dad and was the 4th child, 2nd daughter, of the 11 children of Jozef Laska and Karolina Lipa.

Ceily was a diamond among stones. She was the cultured one in the family and had refined tastes. She was the one who appreciated fine art (and had reproductions hanging in her home), music (the only one in the family to own a musical instrument), shopped at better stores and wore the nicest clothes money could buy. She even had a signature fragrance, Chanel No. 5. Whenever I smell that scent I always think of her.

Ceily Laska Sagovac, 1949

As a child I was fascinated by Auntie Ceily. I idolized her like a Hollywood movie star. I thought I was the luckiest kid on earth to have her for my Godmother. She was very good to me in the material sense but more importantly she was always kind to me. She made a point of talking to me even when there were other adults around. And she never missed an occasion to give me a gift… birthdays, Christmas, Easter, First Holy Communion, graduation. She always remembered me and I adored her. Sadly, Auntie Ceily died of lung cancer in 1989 but she will live in my heart forever.

Today, November 22, is the Feastday of St Cecilia. I’ve no doubt that my Auntie Ceily was named for St Cecilia. It was common for Poles and Americans of Polish descent to name their children after the saint whose feastday was closest to the day of their birth. It’s interesting that my Auntie Ceily and St Cecilia had some things in common too.

It is believed that St Cecilia was born in the 2nd or 3rd century AD in Rome although the exact dates of her birth and martyrdom are unknown. It’s said she was an only child born to wealthy, Christian, educated parents but promised in marriage to a pagan Roman, Valerian, when she was just a young child. Reports of her life differ from one source to another but most agree she was cultured and came from a privileged background.

Painting of St Cecilia done in 1606

A story is told of how Cecilia prayed to God and the saints to protect her virginity and after her wedding to Valerian she told him she was protected by the angels and saints. He then asked her to show him the angel protecting her. She sent him to Pope Urban (223-230) who baptized/converted him and when he returned he found Cecilia praying in a chapel and an angel with flaming wings nearby. Valerian and Cecilia were discovered in that chapel by Valerian’s brother and he was so awed by what he saw that he too converted.

Some time after that, Valerian and his brother were put to death by the Roman prefect. Then, Cecilia too was ordered to be put to death but not before she made arrangements to have her home converted into a church. As the story goes, Cecilia was first sentenced to death by steaming but she survived that. Then she was sentenced to die of beheading. Three attempts were made to behead her before her executioner gave up and fled in fear. It is said that she lingered for three days, baptizing many during that time, until she bled to death.

At some point, (some sources say when she was about to be married others say when she was on her deathbed) Cecilia “sang or heard heavenly music in her heart”. That image caught on and she was forever more known as the patron saint of music, especially church music, and musical instruments. In paintings and art work she is most often portrayed with an organ or violin.

My Auntie Ceily was no St Cecilia but I find it intriguing that she was the only one in her poor immigrant family who lived a cultured life, like the saint she was named for. And the man she married, I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a pagan but he wasn’t Catholic and she married him in a civil ceremony much to the chagrin of her parents who were devout Catholics. I’m not sure if he converted to Catholicism later in life or not but after 20 years together their marriage was finally blessed in a Catholic church. And lastly, Ceily owned first a piano and later an organ. She was the only one in the family to do so. I don’t recall her ever playing either the piano or the organ but I remember plunking away on those ivory keys when we visited her home.

Many blessings to you on St Cecilia Day!

Saint Rafał Kalinowski

Back in October 2007, I traveled to Lithuania to spend a week with my relatives.  My cousins Liliana, Aidas, and Vitas showed me a side of Lithuania I never would have seen on my own.

One day, while walking through the capital city of Vilnius, Liliana brought me to Vilnius University, the oldest university in the Baltic States and Liliana’s alma mater.  Within the walls of the university stood St. John’s Church (Šv. Jonų Bažnyčia).

St. John's Church in Vilnius

St. John’s Church in Vilnius

SOURCE:  St. John’s Church in Vilnius (Vilnius, Lithuania); photographed by Stephen J. Danko on 21 October 2007.

Saint John’s Church in Vilnius is the place where Saint Rafał Kalinowski was baptized.  Born on 01 September 1835, he was baptized on 09 September 1835 with the name Józef, the second child of the Polish nobles Andrzej (Jędrzej) Kalinowski and Józefa Połońska (m. 1832).  Józef’s brother Wiktor (b. 1833) had been born in Vilnius two years earlier.

Birth and Baptismal Record of Józef Kalinowski - 1835

Birth and Baptismal Record of Józef Kalinowski – 1835

SOURCE: Šv. Jonų Bažnyčia (Vilnius, Wilno Gubernia, Russian Empire), “Vilniaus Šv. Jonų RKB gimimo metrikų knyga [Church Registry Books of St. John’s Church, Vilnius],” page 104, entry 226, Józef Kalinowski, 09 September 1835; digital images, ePaveldas (http://www.epaveldas.lt/vbspi/biRecord.do?biExemplarId=30557&psl=209 : accessed 19 November 2011).

Young Józef’s mother died within a few days of his birth.  Józef’s father married Wiktoria Połońska (m. 1838), the sister of his deceased wife Józefa.  Wiktoria gave birth to three children:  Emilia (b. 1840), Karol (b. 1841), and Gabriel (b. 1845).  When Józef was nine years old, his stepmother Wiktoria died.  Józef’s father married again, this time to Zofia Puttkamer (m. 1848).  (Zofia was the daughter of Maria Wereszczak, the first great love of famed Polish/Lithuanian poet Adam Mickiewicz).  Andrzej and Zofia had four children:  Maria (b. 1848), Aleksander (b. 1851), Monika (b. 1851), and Jerzy (b. 1859).

At the time Józef was born, Vilnius was part of the Wilno Gubernia of the Russian Empire.  He attended university in St. Petersburg and, after graduation, Józef was appointed a lieutenant in the corps of engineers in Russia.  His resigned his commission with the Russian military in 1863 and joined the insurgents against the Russian government in the January Uprising.  After the failed uprising, Józef was condemned to death, a sentence that was commuted to ten years of hard labor in Siberia.

After his release from Siberia, Józef joined the Carmelite Order in Graz, Austria where he took the religious name Rafał (Raphael).  Brother Rafał traveled to Györ, Hungary to complete his studies and was ordained to the priesthood in Czerna, Poland where he was appointed prior.  Finally, Rafał was appointed prior and vicar provincial for the Discalced Carmelite nuns in Wadowice, Poland.

Saint Rafał Kalinowski - 1897

Saint Rafał Kalinowski -1897

SOURCE:  Saint Rafał Kalinowski (http://tinyurl.com/7bboj5j : accessed 19 November 2011) citing Praskiewicz, Szczepan T. 1998. Saint Raphael Kalinowski: an introduction to his life and spirituality. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications.

Prayer was the source and guiding principle of Rafał’s life and he worked to instill this philosophy in the Carmelite Order.  Others were drawn to Rafał because of the authenticity of his prayer.

Rafał died in Wadowice on 15 November 1907 and was buried in the convent cemetery.  However, large numbers of pilgrims came to visit his grave, carrying away handfuls of soil.  His remains were moved to a tomb but even that solution did not deter the pilgrims who scratched at the tomb, leaving with bits of plaster.  Finally, his remains were moved to a chapel in Czerna, Poland where they are today.

Rafał Kalinowski was beatified on 23 June 1983 and canonized on 17 November 1991 by Pope John Paul II.  That Pope John Paul II would beatify and canonize Rafał Kalinowski is quite fitting.  Eighteen years after Rafał Kalinowski died in Wadowice, Karol Wojtyła, the future Pope John Paul II, was born in the same village.

Saint Rafał Kalinowski’s feast is celbrated on November 19.

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: Ancestry.com. 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 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/]

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: http://saints.sqpn.com/saint-elizabeth/ 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


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