African-American Sainthood Causes: Everyday Holiness
A Look at Six Holy Lives for Black Catholic History Month
This past Advent, the Archdiocese of Denver officially opened the beatification cause of Servant of God Julia Greeley, a former slave and convert to Catholicism who practiced a remarkable apostolate of love in late 19th-century Denver.
With Greeley’s cause, the number of active sainthood causes for Americans of African descent rises to six. The others are:
- Venerable Pierre Toussaint (1766-1853), a New York City hairdresser who was also a former slave. He purchased his freedom with the earnings he made from his trade.
- Venerable Henriette Delille (1813-1862), the daughter of a white man and mixed-race woman who lived in a common-law relationship, since blacks and whites could not legally marry at the time. Her parents encouraged her to pursue the same path. Instead, she founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans, and these women attended to the needs of slaves and poor free blacks. As she prayed, “I believe in God; I hope in God; I love. I want to live and die for God.”
- Servant of God Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange (ca. 1794-1882), another former slave, founded and served as the first superior general of the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore. She founded the order so that black women would have a means by which to enter religious life. Its other purpose was to educate African-American children.
- Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897) was America’s first black priest. He had to travel to Rome to conduct his priestly training because no U.S. seminary would take him. Back home, his ministry at his church in Quincy, Illinois, was so successful that he drew congregants from the nearby white parish. He later moved to Chicago, where he founded St. Monica’s, the city’s first black parish.
- Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman (1937-1990), a convert, was probably one of the best educated of the American sainthood candidates. She earned her doctorate at The Catholic University of America. In addition to a prolific and prestigious career in education, she also founded a support organization, the National Black Sisters Conference, and helped create the first African-American Catholic hymnal.
The stories of these candidates for sainthood certainly fulfill why the Church presents saints to the faithful, which is to give believers examples of how to live holy lives amid the ordinary circumstances of life.
Greeley and Tolton
Take Greeley, one of the newest members of the American beatification-cause fraternity.
Born a slave in Hannibal, Missouri, her master whipped and abused her so badly that she lost an eye.
Following Emancipation, she made her way to Denver, where she worked as a domestic in the home of the then-territory’s first governor.
During her free time, she would walk local neighborhoods, dragging a little red wagon behind her. In it, she would put discarded items or food and money she had begged. Then she would distribute these goods to those who were even poorer than she.
She always did these corporal works of mercy at night. Sensitive to people’s attitudes at the time, she didn’t want anyone to feel embarrassed because they were receiving help from a black woman, or that they were being helped at all. She wanted to uphold people’s dignity.
She did not seek attention for her charity. Rather, she was satisfied with knowing she had helped people in need. Doing these acts for love of Christ gave her immense joy and contributed to why she was such a happy, attractive figure, despite her facial deformity.
She occasionally came to know those she helped, including one white couple. Invited into their home, she noticed from the decorations that the family was Catholic. She had recently been received into the faith at Sacred Heart Church. Thus knowing that Catholic couples vowed to be open to life as part of their sacrament, she inquired as to the whereabouts of their children.
The lady of the house explained that they were barren. “Never mind that,” Greeley responded. By this time next year, she told them, you will have a child. Sure enough, the couple brought forth a daughter, whom the Servant of God called “this little white angel.”
In a 1939 article in the Denver Catholic Register, titled “Saintly Negress Nurse to Little White Angel,” Julia is said to have been so anxious for her little charge to be a practicing Catholic that she placed a rosary in the baby’s little fingers and, when the child was just 4 months old, tried very hard to teach her to pray. The little baby, Marjorie, was the daughter of George and Agnes Urquhart. Julia went every day to care for the child. The only picture we have of Julia is the one in which she is holding Marjorie at 7 months old; in the photograph, a white rosary is visible in Marjorie’s hand.
Greeley kept a special place in her heart for firefighters, too. It frightened her to think that at any moment they could respond to a fire that would end their lives. What would happen if their souls were not prepared to meet their Creator?
“She wanted them to be prepared,” said Mary Leisring of the Denver-based Julia Greeley Guild.
For this reason, Julia often frequented the city’s firehouses. She would speak with the men about her faith in Jesus Christ, her great love for his Sacred Heart, and the need to be ready if he called them. In this way, she helped firefighters prepare for the end that could come at the sound of every alarm.
As Andrew Lyke, director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Black Catholics, observed about Father Tolton, “He’s going to be, hopefully, a Catholic saint, not just a black Catholic saint, but one that is for the whole Church.”
According to Chicago’s archdiocesan newspaper, the Catholic New World (recently renamed Chicago Catholic), “‘This goes back to a very ancient tradition in the Church for a number of reasons. … Finding [a saint’s] grave was the telltale sign that the person lived, breathed and walked this earth,’ said Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, postulator of Tolton’s cause for canonization.”
Not only did these African-American potential saints walk this earth, they did so in a way that made it better for others.
They brought Christ to those they encountered, not necessarily by doing anything special, but by sanctifying the everyday.
“We’re all called to be saints,” said Leisring, and “we try to be holy the best we can.”
The key, she says, is to live like Greeley, and all of these holy men and women, to “make the choice to be extraordinary in ordinary situations.”
Brian O’Neel writes from