African American saints-on-the way

By Pamela Smith


Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash.


Saint-making is one of those curious Catholic customs. To tell the truth, it’s actually the grace of God and positive human response that generates holy lives. However, the Church has a process called canonization by which it officially recognizes persons whose lives, both in faith and in conduct, were exemplary and whose positive influence on others has had far-reaching effect.


Six African Americans who lived and ministered in the United States have had their lives proposed to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Three of them are officially recognized by the title “Servant of God,” which means that the evidence of their lives offers sufficient ground to move their cases forward. Three have been deemed “Venerable,” which means that the pope has reviewed materials presented to him and found that the persons exhibited heroic virtue and thus can be presented as worthy of not only admiration but also veneration.


Five of the six lived at least part of their lives in the shadow of slavery, and several began their lives as slaves. The eldest of the three women now known as Servant of God is Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, a Cuban of Haitian descent who in 1829 cofounded the Oblate Sister of Providence based in Baltimore. Her religious community served until the late 20th century in schools and parishes in the Diocese of Charleston. Judge Arthur McFarland has often noted the compassion, care and quality of teaching we experienced as a student of the Oblate sisters, and he credits them with influencing his conversion to Catholicism. Mother Lange herself was instrumental in assuring that the sisters, firmly committed to teaching and also caring for orphans, responded to many needs that arose: providing solace for impoverished mothers, nursing the ill during epidemics and providing means for freed slaves to establish themselves in arts, crafts and professions.


After having been freed from slavery, Servant of God Julia Greeley spent much of her life in Colorado. A domestic worker, she stood out as an active parishioner, a regular visitor to Denver fire stations and a quiet benefactor to the poor. She had a special devotion to the Holy Eucharist and helped popularize devotion to the heart of Christ. For the last 18 years of her life she lived as a laywoman with the vows of a secular Franciscan and is seen as one who embodied the gentle spirit of St. Francis of Assisi.


Servant of God Thea Bowman, who died in 1990, is the most contemporary of those en route to recognition for sanctity. Sister Thea was a youthful convert to Catholicism who joined the Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, a community which, despite the cloistered-sounding name, is engaged in active ministry. With a doctorate in literature, Sister Thea was a respected and well-loved professor. She was also a proponent of African American spirituality and inculturation of the Gospel, with a particular focus on music and dance in African American and African modes. She was a driving force behind the production of the Lead Me, Guide Me hymnal, which can be found to this day in the pews at St. Martin de Porres Church in Columbia. Her emphatic evangelical style attracted widespread audiences, not only nationally but internationally. In her last days she dealt with the ravages of breast cancer and modeled graceful dying.


The three who are known as Venerable will be named Blessed (beatified) and Saint (canonized) upon evidence that their prayerful influence has been instrumental in miracles, typically healings of people who have been commended to their care. Catholics believe that those in heaven continue to be connected with and interested in the well-being of all of us here below, and although we reserve adoration and worship to God, we do talk to our friends in heaven and ask their assistance. So Pierre Toussaint, Henriette de Lille and Father Augustus Tolton are considered to be among those faithful departed who can exercise some spiritual leverage on our behalf.


Venerable Pierre Toussaint was a man who started life as a slave in Haiti and ended up as a wildly successful hair stylist in New York City. A devout Catholic husband, he along with his wife housed homeless people, refugees and orphans in their own home. He used his mounting wealth to support the Church and to fund education for impoverished youth. Toussaint became known as an entrepreneur and philanthropist — and was one of the first men of color to achieve that distinction while also being a man of conspicuous faith. Like Mother Mary Lange, he also risked his own health to tend to others during epidemics and was known for his readiness to watch and pray with the dying.


Venerable Henriette de Lille was a native of New Orleans whose life ended as the War Between the States was in progress. Photos of her indicate that she was likely deemed a quadroon or octoroon, in the parlance of the day. As a laywoman, she was outspoken in her insistence on the importance of educating slaves. Long before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, she founded a religious community of black sisters, the Sisters of the Holy Family, who were dedicated to teaching. Her efforts in starting the community met with opposition and ridicule, but she remained steadfast in prayer and in action despite her own delicate health. She is upheld as a promoter of justice, particularly on behalf of the underserved.


Venerable Father Augustus Tolton has a biography that highlights how bigotry can infect and blind religious people — and how saintly people rise above that bigotry. Born into slavery in 1854, he is often regarded as the first known African American priest. We should note, however, that Bishop John England is cited as having ordained one George Paddington in Haiti (when that was part of the Diocese of Charleston), and Paddington is said to have served later in Ireland and then back in the States in St. Louis. In any case, Tolton, a slave freed when he was a young child, was raised as a Catholic. When he proposed studying for the priesthood, no Catholic seminary in America would accept him, so he was sent to Rome and ordained for what is now the Archdiocese of Chicago. There he lived among the poor, established a parish for black Catholics in a city noted for its many ethnic parishes and exhausted himself in service to others. His homiletic and musical gifts, as well as his affable personality, drew others to him and modeled evangelization by example.


These six holy persons get attention among Catholics around the state in November (Black Catholic History Month) and February (Black History Month). But they are also readily proposed for emulation as Lent begins. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the three traditional Lenten disciplines. Each of these, in his or her own way and in his or her own calling — as layperson, as vowed religious sister or as priest — lived those disciplines. Testimonies about their lives indicate that each was devoted to prayer, was self-sacrificial, eschewed extravagance and gave generously of personal means and skills. Being reminded that ordinary people can overcome obstacles and excel in receptivity to God-given grace is, after all, why Catholics continue to study and name saints.



Pamela Smith, SS.C.M., serves as director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Catholic Diocese of Charleston. She holds a doctorate in systematic theology from Duquesne University and is the author of 14 books, with two additional forthcoming in 2020.

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