(I am writing a monthly column for my parish bulletin’s Social Justice Ministry, reflecting on the Sunday Readings)
Following Jesus (Is 6:1-2a, 3-8; 1 Cor 15:1-11; Lk 5:1-11)
In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls Simon Peter, James, and John. The fishermen leave everything and follow Jesus. February is Black History Month, which is the time our nation remembers and celebrates the achievements, contributions, and influence of Black Americans in our country. Although an African-American has yet to be canonized, that does not mean there have not been many faithful Black Americans that have heeded Jesus’ calls and followed him. This month, let us remember the six African-Americans who are on the path to sainthood. Being given the titles ‘Servant of God’ and ‘Venerable’ by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints are the first steps to being canonized as saints.
Venerable Pierre Toussaint (1766-1853) was born into slavery in Haiti and brought to New York as an apprentice under a popular hairstylist. He gained his freedom when his slaveholder died and quickly succeeded as one of the country’s first Black entrepreneurs. He used his wealth to support the Church and shelter orphans, refugees, and the homeless. Pierre was instrumental in raising funds for the first Catholic orphanage and began the city’s first school for Black children. He also helped provide funds for the Oblate Sisters of Providences and provided vital funds to erect Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Lower Manhattan.
Servant of God Mother Mary Lange (circa 1794-1882) was born to a family of wealth and high social status in Santiago de Cuba. After being provided an excellent education, Mother Mary left Cuba and moved to the United States, eventually settling in Baltimore, Maryland. She opened her home as a free school for Black children. At that time, there were no religious communities that accepted Black men or women. So, Mother Mary, with the permission of her Archbishop, founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence and served as its first Mother Superior. Though she faced constant opposition and injustice, Mother Mary served her community and strove to bring Christ to every individual she encountered.
Venerable Henriette Delille (1813-1862) was born a free Creole Black woman in antebellum New Orleans. She is the first U.S. native born African American whose cause for canonization has been officially opened by the Catholic Church. Henriette and her sisters helped the poor and taught free Black students during the day. They also secretly educated African-Americans who were enslaved when it was against the law to educate them. They opened one of the country’s first Catholic nursing homes. Along with two lifelong friends, Henriette formed the Sisters of the Holy Family. Though they faced discrimination from other religious people and congregations, Henriette and her religious community overcame numerous obstacles and carried out their mandate to care for the sick, help the poor, and instruct the ignorant.
Venerable Augustus Tolton (1854-1897) was born in Bush Creek, Missouri and enslaved by a Catholic family. In 1862, Augustus and his family escaped slavery and settled in Illinois. Augustus, who was raised Catholic, attended a parish school and dedicated his life to serving God. When he desired to enter seminary, no American seminary would accept him because he was Black. Racism did not deter Augustus, and he studied for the priesthood in Rome where he was later ordained. He learned to speak fluent English, German, Italian, Latin, Greek, and African dialects. He was sent back to the United States and became the first openly Black priest in the United States. Fr. Tolton led the development and construction of St. Monica’s Catholic Church as a Black “National Parish Church,” which was completed in 1893. Tolton’s success at ministering to Black Catholics quickly earned him national attention within the Catholic hierarchy. Though he experienced discrimination, Augustus served his community, helped the poor and sick, and won souls for God before he died at the age of 43.
Servant of God Julia Greeley was born into slavery in Hannibal, Missouri sometime between 1833 and 1848. Freed by Missouri’s Emancipation Act in 1865, Julia then earned her keep by serving white families. Despite her own poverty, Julia spent much of her time collecting food, clothing, and other goods for the poor. One writer called her a “one-person St. Vincent de Paul Society. Julia joined the Catholic Church in 1880 and became an enthusiastic parishioner, daily communicant, and active member of the Secular Franciscan Order in 1901. The Jesuits who ran Sacred Heart Parish in Denver considered Julia the most enthusiastic promoter of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus they had ever seen. Julia died on the Feast of the Sacred Heart in 1918.
Servant of God Thea Bowman (1937-1990) was born in Canton, Mississippi to a physician and teacher. She converted to Catholicism as a child while attending Catholic school. At the age of 15, Thea left Mississippi and entered the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Wisconsin. Sr. Thea taught all grade levels of school and eventually earned her doctorate and became a college professor of English and linguistics. Sr. Thea became a highly acclaimed evangelizer, teacher, writer, and singer who shared the joy of the Gospel and her rich African-American cultural heritage. She directed the Office of Intercultural Affairs for the Diocese of Jackson and was a founding faculty member of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at the only Catholic Historically Black College and University, Xavier University, in New Orleans. After her breast cancer diagnosis, Sr. Thea continued to speak and share the gospel. Less than a year before she passed away in 1990, Thea addressed the U.S. Bishops at their annual meeting and spoke about what it meant to be Black and Catholic, encouraging them to continue to evangelize the African-American community, promote inclusivity and full participation of Black people, and understand the necessity and value of Catholic schools in Black communities.
During the month of February, take time to pray for the canonization causes of the six African-Americans who answered Jesus’ call.