Happy Black History Month everyone!
I have heard Dr. Shannen Dee Williams, a Black Catholic scholar on the history of African American women in religious life in the United States, say it best, and it rings true: “Black history is Catholic history.”
I think it’s also helpful to state as well: Black Catholic history is Black history. So, since it is Black History Month I thought I’d share some of the personal reflections I’ve written on my apostolate’s website, theblackcatholic.com, on a few of the Church’s Black/African saints and future saints of the past while telling you a little about the life they led. I hope this inspires you to learn more about them, share their stories, and, most importantly, ask them to pray for you.
Venerable Augustus Tolton (1854-1897)
Father Tolton was the first recognized African American Roman Catholic priest in United States history. He was born into slavery in Missouri on April 1, 1854, and his family later escaped to the free state of Illinois. He was raised Catholic and later expressed desires for the priesthood. With the help of an Irish Franciscan priest, Fr. Peter McGirr, Tolton applied to various American seminaries but was rejected from every one. He then applied for studies in Rome and was accepted. Later he was ordained on April 24, 1886 in Rome and was sent back to the United States. Tolton first served in Quincy, Illinois and was later reassigned to Chicago in order to minister to African American Catholics in the city. He would serve and build up the Black Catholic community there. He died on July 9, 1897. Tolton faced racial tensions and discrimination throughout his calling to the priesthood but never wavered to serve God’s Church and by his efforts helped her to be a better manifestation of her “Catholic” name in the U.S.
I think Tolton was the first African American that I found out was on the way to becoming a saint. I found him excitingly unique because he was a Black American Catholic (when there were not/still not many), he was a Black priest (especially for him being the first for America), and he could be a saint in the future. And even now as an African American it feels good that I can claim a certain possession of him and call him my own in some way. When it comes to Tolton, he is someone I can look up to and mold myself after. His life was amazing, from slavery to priesthood, and he is an image I can try to replicate. He “looks” like me and we both (albeit broadly and distantly) share a common heritage and ancestry as two Black men. Especially for me as a man in the seminary, Tolton is the giant whose shoulders I could very well stand upon as a priest (if God wills it), but I still would stand very tall upon those same shoulders even as just a Black member of the lay faithful.
The Black community knows very well of MLK, Malcolm X, Fred Douglass, H. Tubman, and many others, but how many know about Tolton? I doubt many outside of the Church do. To my memory, I had absolutely no idea about him till after I became Catholic. His story should join the litany of other Black lives that speak from history to give us a hope and a future. I think many in my community would be proud to know about him. Even more broadly than that, I think that all Americans would be proud to know about him as well given the fact the he is the U.S.’s first recognized Black priest. His life is very important to our history as a nation. He’s a good “recent” holy one whose broad life story would be good to memorize to able to quickly relay his story to other people.
I end with something I penned about him in an article I wrote for uCatholic in 2018 (“The Great Equalizer: How the Sacraments Make Us All Equal”) that sums up everything nicely:
“Fr. Augustus Tolton was a true priest of Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church, and there was not a thing any detractor could have said about it. He was as much of an alter Christus as a White priest was. He could confect the same Eucharist, forgive the same sins, witness the same marriages, baptize the same babies, and anoint the same sick all not due to his race but rather to the sacrament he received. When he performed his duties he did them in the Person of Christ not in the person of a Black or White man, for the One Priesthood he was ordained into is not a respecter of race. All of this would be true for any other Black man ordained after him.”
His cause for sainthood is ongoing. On February 24, 2011 his cause was opened by the Archdiocese of Chicago making him a Servant of God, the first step towards canonization.
On June 12, 2019, Tolton was declared Venerable by Pope Francis I, the second step towards canonization.
Servant of God Julia Greeley (Born between 1833-1848 – died 1918)
Greeley was born a slave in Hannibal, Missouri sometime between 1833-1848. During her enslavement she endured horrific treatment including losing her right eye as a child when a slave master was beating her mother and the whip cracked back and hit her.
After slavery she worked for the family of Colorado’s first territorial governor, and around 1878 she went to Denver. Greely converted to the Catholic Church in 1880 and lived a robust faith life as a daily communicant and active parishioner. She became member of the Secular Franciscan Order. She maintained a special devotion to the Sacred Heart throughout her life and was a fervent promoter of the devotion to others. She often gave Sacred Heart images and other information about prayer to firefighters in Denver. Greely lived a poor life herself but still regularly collected goods for others in poverty, and in order to keep those she helped from embarrassment, she would help them during the night. She died on the Feast of the Sacred Heart on June 7, 1918 in Denver. Julia Greeley was Black in body and sacred in heart.
When I first read her story about how she lost her eye I winced both externally and internally. I vividly imagine from her perspective a scared little girl in horror watching her mother getting whipped. She tries to keep her eyes averted from the evil in front on her, yet she can’t help but to take a few frightened looks to see if Momma is okay. Maybe it was like watching a car crash – there’s a primal and raw sense to peer out at it all. Then one slash by the slave “master” at her mother strikes again. Momma screams out in brutal pain. Julia’s head turns instinctively towards her at the sound of mother’s cry of anguish, and right after she does the slave driver’s whip, veering back for another blow, snakes in air towards Julia and pops her in the eye. I can see the final view of the whip just before it hits her, and I can almost feel the terrible streak of instant pain Julia must have felt. This really stuck with me – this was a mark from slavery left upon Julia for the rest of her life.
Even still, God had the last mark on her life. No one remembers her former “master” but many remember Julia. And if she (God willing) is made a saint of the Catholic Church, she will be remembered until the end of time. The evil of slavery did not take her down in bitterness. Rather, she still lived a life of radical charity and witness to Jesus and His love in the Sacred Heart. She shows us the convert’s zeal (a zeal I know well) and lived a very active Catholic life from 1880 on. Something of Jesus got her as she spent her days giving out of her own poverty for her fellow poor. The fact that she walked around town with a red wagon giving out food, clothes, and images of the Sacred Heart might seem kind of strange to us today. Who would do that? Running around with a wagon. What would people think? Seems like a way to be made fun of, right? A small price to pray for this “fool for Christ.”
She shows us a way for regular Catholics. How many of you are daily Mass-goers or at least active at the parish? Third-order member of some kind? You are on the right track. Maybe after all is said and done you can be a Servant of God too (and more). Above all, her life is about the tons of little things and sacrifices to attend to in ordinary life. A life of persistently doing the good for He Who is Goodness itself. A Black body marked by the bitterness of others, yet a heart kept sacred for Our Lord’s own Sacred Heart.
Her cause for sainthood is ongoing. In December 2016 the Archdiocese of Denver opened her cause making her a Servant of God, the first step towards canonization.
St. Martin de Porres (1579-1639)
St. Martin was born in Lima, Peru on December 9, 1579 out of wedlock to a Spanish gentlemen and a freed Black woman. He father refused to acknowledge his son for eight years because of his dark complexion. His father later abandoned the family leaving them in poverty. He often suffered ridicule and mockery during his childhood for being mixed-race.
The law prohibited descendants of Africans or Indians from becoming full members of religious orders. The prior of the Dominican community he joined disregarded the law and allowed him to enter. However, even after joining he was ridiculed by other members for his race and background. During his life St. Martin took care of the less fortunate including African slaves, founded an orphanage, and served as a spiritual director for his fellow Dominican brothers. He performed miracles, cured others, and was given miraculous knowledge. St. Martin made friends with two others who would later go on to become Catholic saints, St. Juan Macias and St. Rose of Lima. He died on November 3, 1639 after almost year of suffering illness. It must be said that though St. Martin may have been slave descent he was always internally free.
Learning about St. Martin’s life I see so much about it that parallels the Black experience. He checks a number of boxes in the issues that we as Black people have faced in the past and some still face today.
– born out of wedlock, parents never married
– father left home after the birth of a child (he left after St. Martin’s sister was born)
– single-parent household, raised by mother (true for me too)
– encountered racist laws
– encountered racial discrimination
– not allowed to join an organization as a full member on account of race
– Mocked/ridiculed by others for his race and background
– poor family and life growing up
– assigned the most menial of tasks
I couldn’t help but think, “man, he lived a life not too different from our history.”
But as he had a life that showcased a lot of Black struggle, he also had a life that showcased a bounty of Black triumph. Even when life tried to keep him out of his calling he persevered and fought the devil’s lie of racism with God’s truth of love. Even though he was racially discriminated against he never returned it with hatred but followed his Lord’s call to bless his persecutors. He shows us a life of strength and holiness that can be found in ordinary existence with ordinary tasks as he worked the most basic jobs while later advancing from them.
He has a quote that reminds me of another great Black figure:
St. Martin de Porres said: “Everything, even sweeping, scraping vegetables, weeding a garden and waiting on the sick could be a prayer, if it were offered to God.”
Martin Luther King Jr. said: “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”
St. Martin, just like all the Church’s Black/African saints and future saints did his job well.
Pope St. John XXIII canonized him on May 6, 1962. His patronage is black people, mixed-raced people, Peru, barbers, public health.
Tolton, Greely, and Martin, pray for us!