Black History Month Feature: Black Roman Catholics Who Changed America

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-9-13-19-pmBlack History month  reminds us that there are great moments that need to be celebrated. Faith is one of those things. There are a few Black  Catholics that helped change the timber and breath of our nation.

  • Pierre Toussaint
    Arriving in New York from Haiti in 1787 with his owner, Jean Bªrard, Pierre Toussaint is apprenticed to a New York hairdresser. He becomes a friend to the city’s aristocracy by dressing the hair of wealthy women.

When Bªrard dies penniless, Toussaint financially supports Bªrard’s wife, nursing her through emotional and physical ailments. She grants him his freedom in 1807. His stable income allows him to buy freedom for his sister and his future wife, and to be generous with many individuals and charities, including an orphanage and school for black children. He cares for the ill when yellow fever sweeps the city and opens his home to homeless youth, teaching them violin and paying for their schooling.A case for his beatification has since been opened in Rome. He would be the first black American saint.  Pierre helped shaped the orphanage system and give it structure.

  • Oblate Sisters of Providence
    A handful of women from Baltimore’s Haitian refugee colony begin to educate local children in their homes. With the support of the archbishop, in 1829 they create the Oblate Sisters of Providence. The first superior is Elizabeth Lange, born in Cuba of Haitian parents.

A later archbishop dismisses the need for an order of black religious, but the sisters find new advocates among the Redemptorists and in Saint John Neumann, then archbishop of Philadelphia. Their ministry spreads to Philadelphia and New Orleans. The sisters started refugee support for immigrants. They also started the formal parochial school system.

  • James Augustine Healy, First Black Bishop
    Although James Healy and his nine siblings–all fathered by a Georgia plantation owner–are officially slaves, their father brings them north for education and freedom. Three of the Healy brothers–James, Patrick, and Alexander–become the first African American priests in the U.S., although they do not identify with being black and never speak out on behalf of blacks.

Bishop John Fitzpatrick of Boston, a friend of their father, encourages the boys to attend Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. James studies for the priesthood in Paris and is ordained bishop of Portland, Maine in 1875.

His brother, Patrick Francis Healy, a Jesuit who conceals his African origins for much of his career, becomes president of George-town University in 1874 (ironic because Georgetown admitted no black students until the mid-1900s).James would not ally himself with black Catholic leaders nor agree to address meetings of black Catholics, once citing Saint Paul’s admonition that there shall be no Greek nor Jew in Christ.

Bishop Healy  spurred the first discussion of black attending Ivy league colleges.

  • Knights of Peter Claver
    The fraternity of the Knights of Peter Claver is established by the work of Josephite priests as a parallel to the Knights of Columbus. It soon develops chapters for women and young people.  The Knight of Peter Claver gave longshoremen  the first official lodges and homes. Their assistance spurred support for union life of men who worked long periods of time at sea. The men were offered education, medicine and shelter.


  • Black Catholic Congresses
    The National Black Catholic Congress is re-established in 1985 as a coalition of black Catholic organizations. In 1987, NBCC renews the tradition of gathering black Catholics from across the country. The first renewed congress, Congress VI (the first five took place in the 1800s), takes place in May of 1987 in Washington, D.C. NBCC holds a national congress every five years, and each event attracts growing numbers of attendees. Congress IX is August 29-September 1 in Chicago. The Black Catholic Congress spurred faith lobbying and education lobbyists to reflect on minority community needs in small towns. They have also led the way in getting legal counsel for the under represented.

Leave a Reply