November 1, 2022 | Editorials and Columns, Opinion
Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop Bruce A. Lewandowski bows before images of six African Americans who are candidates for sainthood during the All Saints’ Day Mass at St. Ann Church in Baltimore Nov. 1, 2021. (CNS photo/Kevin J. Parks, Catholic Review)

A celebration of the collective gifts brought by Black Catholics

BY F. VERONICA WILHITE, OFFICE OF BLACK CATHOLIC MINISTRY

The Office of Black Catholic Ministry would like to offer special congratulations to Rosary Chapel, an historically Black Catholic parish in Paducah, on celebrating their 75th anniversary in October. Rosary Chapel is the model of Black Catholic parishes exemplifying inclusion of all races and cultures while maintaining their identity!

November is Black Catholic History Month during which Black Catholics strive to highlight the contributions of African-American Catholics to events in history and contemporary society. During the month of November the Church celebrates  the feasts of All Saints Day (Nov. 1), All Souls Day ( Nov. 2), St. Martin de Porres (Nov. 3); and the birth of St. Augustine (Nov. 13). This commemoration began in 1990 when the delegates to the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus passed a resolution to do so.

Today, there are many reasons for celebrating the gifts brought to the Church by an estimated 3 million-plus Black Catholics in the US. There are more than 700 predominately Black Catholic parishes and eight active Black bishops: Bishop Roy E. Campbell, Jr., auxiliary bishop of Washington; Bishop Fernand J. Cheri, OFM, auxiliary bishop of New Orleans; Bishop Joseph A. Espaillat, auxiliary bishop of New York; Bishop Jacques E. Fabre, C.S., bishop of Charleston; Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre, archbishop of Louisville; Bishop Jerome Feudjio, bishop of the U.S. Virgin Islands; Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington; and Bishop Joseph N. Perry, auxiliary bishop of Chicago. There are 250 African American priests; 437 deacons; 75 men of African descent in seminary formation; 400 African American religious sisters; and 50 religious brothers and numerous African missionary sisters and priests throughout the U.S.

Another reason for celebration is the inspiring list of Black men and women whose causes for canonization are being advanced. In 2018, the historically Black Catholic Xavier University of Louisiana (founded by St. Katharine Drexel) announced that its Institute of Black Catholic Studies (IBCS) would support efforts toward the canonization of five Black Catholics:

  • Venerable Pierre Toussaint (1766-1853), the former slave and philanthropist who is buried in New York’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.
  • Venerable Henriette Delille (1813-1862), from New Orleans, a descendant of slaves who founded the Sisters of the Holy Family;
  • Servant of God Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange (ca. 1794-1882), the Haitian refugee who had a passion for educating children and who founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
  • Servant of God Fr. Augustus Tolton (1854-1897), who was born in slavery and eventually attended seminary in Rome because no American seminary would accept him, and who was a pastor in Chicago.
  • Servant of God Julia Greeley (c. 1833-1918), the former slave who was Denver’s “Angel of Mercy,” now buried in Denver’s cathedral.

Later, the Diocese of Jackson announced the beginning of formal efforts to advance the cause for canonization a sixth candidate – Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, one of the founding members of the IBCS. There is reason for great hope that these six figures will inspire generations of Catholics regardless of race.

There are many Black Catholic organizations and ministries actively leading the empowerment, evangelization, inclusion and ministry of Black Catholics and the Black community such as: The National Black Catholic Congress, The National Association of Black Catholic Administrators, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops African American Affairs, The Knights of Peter Claver/Ladies Auxiliary, National Black Catholic Seminarians Association, National Black Sisters Conference and diocesan offices of Black Catholic Ministry are just a few examples of the collective gifts brought to the Church.

A conversation about gifts without mention of the liturgists and musicians who lead our praise and worship would be incomplete. In the 1982 the Archdiocese of Washington Office of Black Catholic Ministry sponsored REJOICE!, The first Conference on Black Catholic Liturgy. In 1989, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Leonard Olivier led a group of nearly 100 Black priests, theologians, historians, liturgists, musicians, and parishioners to Rome for an international REJOICE! Conference. Through presentations by Fr. Clarence Williams, Sister Eva Marie Lumas, Leon Roberts, then-Fr. Edward Braxton, and Dr. Diana Hayes, the rich tradition of Black Catholic liturgy was presented at the Vatican. The impact of the conference was felt nationally and internationally within the Church.

As much of the work of Black Catholics has been motivated by the pastoral letter “Open Wide Our Hearts,” the work in forming REJOICE! was based on an earlier letter from the Black bishops of the United States, “What We have Seen and Heard,” which specifically promoted the training of liturgists and catechists in a liturgy that was authentically Black and truly Catholic. The Black bishops of the United States encouraged Black Catholics to share the richness of their Black experience with the entire people of God. REJOICE! shared that abundance with the entire world.

Veronica Wilhite is the director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry for the Diocese of Owensboro. Learn more at owensborodiocese.org/Black-catholic-ministry.

Upcoming events

The Interregional African American Evangelization Conference (IAACEC), which offers continuing ed credits in Afrocentric Ministry and Evangelization, will be held March 16-19, 2023 in Cincinnati. The National Black Catholic Congress will convene July 20-23, 2023, in Washington, D.C. Rooms are filling fast. Reserve now by contacting the office of Black Catholic Ministry: (270) 683-1545 or veronica.wilhite@pastoral.org.


Originally printed in the November 2022 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.

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