The words of the well-known spiritual, “We’ve Come This Far by Faith,” offer a special insight into why Black Catholic History Month, which we celebrate in November, should matter to all Catholics. That refrain sung so poignantly by gospel choirs and congregations in predominantly African American Catholic parishes encapsulates the history of Black Catholics in our country because through times of slavery, segregation and racism in our country and even in our churches, Black Catholics kept the faith.
Deacon Al Turner, the director of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Black Catholics, has noted, “We have been here, in this Church, in this country, almost from the beginning.” By learning Black Catholic History, fellow Catholics can come “to know us as a people of bravery, a people of loyalty, a people of faithfulness.”
Black Catholics include African Americans from the United States as well as people from the Caribbean, Cuba and South America, and people from the continent of Africa. In fact, it is estimated that one-fifth, or more than 200 million, of the world’s one billion Catholics have roots in Africa. In our archdiocese, we have an estimated 100,000 Black Catholics, about one-sixth of our total Catholic population in Washington, D.C., and the five surrounding Maryland counties. Of our 140 parishes, approximately 40 have a predominantly Black Catholic membership.
This Year of Faith proclaimed by Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, provides an opportunity to focus more deeply on the history of the Church as well as her tenets, and Black Catholics have played an important role throughout her 2,000-year existence. A new booklet from the archdiocese’s Office of Black Catholics traces key moments in Black Catholic history in a day-by-day format throughout the month of November. The information it contains, though, is relevant any time of the year.
For instance, three popes are known to be of African descent, and noted saints with African roots include St. Martin de Porres, a Dominican brother born in Peru in 1579 who was known for his outreach to the poor; St. Augustine, the great doctor of the Church; the early Christian martyrs St. Perpetua and St. Felicity; and St. Josephine Bakhita, a former slave in Sudan who became the first African woman to be canonized a saint in the 21st century.
Several Black Catholic heroes and heroines of the faith are highlighted in the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, which offers role models to illustrate different aspects of Catholicism. Among those singled out as an example to be emulated is Mother Mary Lange, a Haitian immigrant and educator, who with three companions founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1829 in Maryland. The oldest order of Catholic sisters for women of color, the Sisters of Providence congregation was founded at a time when educating blacks was illegal. At great personal risk to themselves, these sisters dedicated themselves to serving orphans and educating black children. Around the same time, Mother Lange founded Baltimore’s historic Saint Francis Academy, which continues to thrive today as a co-ed high school that educates mainly inner city African American and Hispanic youth. Mother Lange’s candidacy for sainthood began in 1990.
Another notable figure of African descent was Simon of Cyrene, who helped carry Jesus’ cross to Calvary. In modern times, Black Catholics in America and other parts of the world have borne the cross of racism and segregation. When Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle became the Archdiocese of Washington’s first resident archbishop in 1948, he immediately began working to integrate the archdiocese’s Catholic parishes and schools. The stain of segregation had even infected our own Catholic community, with Black Catholics in past generations sometimes being directed to wait until the end of the Communion line and sit in the back of church. Thanks to Cardinal O’Boyle’s leadership, Catholic schools in the nation’s capital were integrated before the Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954.
Today in parishes like St. Augustine – the mother church of African American Catholics in Washington, D.C., which was founded in 1858 by free men and women of color, including former slaves – Catholics of different races join hands and pray the Our Father together.
In 1984, the Black bishops of the United States wrote a pastoral letter on evangelization, “What We Have Seen and Heard.” The bishops noted the gifts that Black Catholics share with each other and with the whole Catholic community, including a deep reverence for Scripture, a knowledge that true freedom comes through Christ, and a spirituality marked by prayer and joy that is rooted in community and family. “Every place is a place for prayer, because God’s presence is heard and felt in every place,” the bishops wrote.
As we undertake the work of the New Evangelization, we can learn much from Black Catholic History and the Black Catholic presence in our Church today. Those who have “come this far by faith,” can teach us so much about keeping, and sharing, the gift of our Catholic faith, through good times and through times of struggle. The words of the spiritual offer us a simple and enduring way to proceed, “leaning on the Lord, trusting in his holy word….”