Black Catholics See Continued Progress on the Road to Canonization for ‘Saintly Six’

The COVID-19 pandemic put a slowdown on the causes of men and women who are poised to become the United States’ first African American saints and have much to offer the universal Church about faithfully following Jesus Christ.

Top row: L to R: Venerable Henriette DeLille, Venerable Augustus Tolton and Servant of God Julia Greeley
Bottom row:  L to R: Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Servant of God Mary Lange and Servant of God Thea Bowman
Top row: L to R: Venerable Henriette DeLille, Venerable Augustus Tolton and Servant of God Julia Greeley Bottom row: L to R: Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Servant of God Mary Lange and Servant of God Thea Bowman (photo: Used with permission of the National Black Catholic Congress, ©2019)

Thirty-three years after Venerable Henriette DeLille’s cause was opened, an alleged miracle is now in the hands of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican, putting this holy heroine of New Orleans close to becoming the first African American Catholic raised to the altars of the Catholic Church.

“We’re just waiting, praying, hoping and telling everybody to pray,” Sister of the Holy Family Doris Goudeaux, the head of the commission working on Venerable Henriette’s cause, told the Register. A previous alleged miracle lacked enough supporting documentation, but Sister Doris said she hoped this second alleged miracle would convince the Vatican to approve Henriette’s beatification.

Right now, the causes of six African American Catholic men and women, or the “Saintly Six,” as they are commonly known among Black Catholics, are moving forward in various stages. None have been declared “Blessed” yet — the penultimate stage before canonization.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down progress, particularly at the Vatican, it has allowed the “Saintly Six” to achieve broader veneration among Catholics in the U.S. and even overseas, with many more faithful discovering their part of the Church’s story and relevance for the Church today.

Venerable Henriette DeLille (1813-1862) grew up in a New Orleans society where women of African descent were groomed and exploited for sexual companionship (in a system called placage) to high-status European American men. DeLille, who appears to have had two children as a teenager through placage, would learn more about the teachings of her Catholic faith and decisively commit herself to follow Jesus Christ at age 23. She then worked fiercely to dismantle placage and promote the sacrament of matrimony, witnessing many marriages in the face of opposition from people within society and the Church. She found an ally in the Vatican, which approved her religious order, today’s Sisters of the Holy Family, that dedicated itself to care for the sick, the poor, and those without education, particularly Black and Creole children.

“The last line in her obituary is that ‘for the love of Jesus Christ, she made herself the humble servant of slaves,’” Sister Doris said. “She gave herself in service right to the end, out of love, to the slaves and the sick, to the orphan and the aged, to the forgotten and to the despised. That’s what her life was about.”

The life of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897) can provide inspiration both to Black Catholic men discerning or persevering in their vocation to the priesthood, and to all Catholic priests who may at times feel isolated or marginalized in their vocation by their brother priests and from Church leadership.

While Augustus had the support of the Vatican, which ordained him a priest with a mandate to return to the U.S. as a missionary, he faced fierce opposition and resentment from Church leaders in the U.S. who had fought racial equality in defiance of papal teaching. Eventually, Venerable Augustus was driven out from his parish in Quincy, Illinois, by a white Catholic priest and the local bishop, who were furious that both African American and European American Catholics had freely gathered to worship and for fellowship in Father Tolton’s church and demanded segregation. He then went to serve in the Archdiocese of Chicago, establishing a new parish for Black Catholics and ministering to all from 1889 until 1897, when he died from heat exhaustion at the age of 42.

“He had very few people to lean on,” said Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago, the postulator of the cause. Venerable Augustus was at the time the nation’s only known Catholic priest who was Black and had only a small handful of U.S. priests and nuns as allies, including St. Katharine Drexel. But Bishop Perry believes Father Tolton’s example can provide strength and encouragement to Catholics who feel scandalized or discouraged by the poor example of fellow Catholics and leaders in the Church.

“He could have said No. He could have left the Church. He could have become an alcoholic. He could have done a lot of things,” Bishop Perry said. “But he hung in there, and he absolved his past. … He seems to have forgiven all of that by asking his mother to make sure upon his death that he would be buried in Quincy.”

Bishop Perry said that COVID interrupted many planned events for the Tolton cause, but the guild is looking forward in 2021 to reactivating pilgrimages to Tolton-related sites in Quincy and Brush Creek, Missouri, where he was born under slavery, as well as to the places where he ministered in Chicago.

They are right now praying for a miracle to see Venerable Augustus Tolton declared “Blessed.” The bishop said they have received requests for his intercession and reports of favors from around the world, including from Russia, the Philippines and Germany.

“All kinds of people are really touched by his story,” the bishop said.

 

Heroes of Holiness 

Servant of God Julia Greeley (1833/48?-1918), Denver’s “Angel of Charity” and “Apostle of the Sacred Heart,” has a cause for sainthood making progress, as well. Like Venerable Augustus Tolton, Greeley also suffered under the violence of slavery in Missouri and gained her freedom during the U.S. Civil War. 

However, Greeley went West, settling in Denver. She led an intensely Eucharistic life and performed works of charity, although the prevalence of racism meant that sometimes she had to carry out her mission of mercy to poor white families under the cover of darkness. When she died, a constant stream of mourners came to pay their last respects as her body lay in state for five hours in her parish church.

Greeley’s remains now rest in the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints recently issued a decree approving the validity of the investigation into Greeley’s life and the devotion to her.

While Greeley was known in the West as a one-woman St. Vincent de Paul Society, over in New York, Venerable Pierre Touissant (1766-1853) is credited as the de facto founder of the city’s Catholic Charities.

Toussaint was also born under slavery in Haiti, but he gained his freedom in 1807 in New York, taking his last name in honor of the devout Catholic and military hero of the Haitian Revolution, Touissant L’Ouverture, whose leadership was key to defeating the French Empire and ending slavery in Haiti. Venerable Pierre sought to use his freedom to liberate men and women from sin, oppression and poverty. As a successful hairdresser, Venerable Pierre was widely known for his integrity among New York’s high society. Together with his wife, Juliette, Touissant fostered children; the couple dedicated their income to support orphans, refugees and migrants and helped the unemployed find work. They also contributed to the building of the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. 

His cause is now waiting on a miracle it can submit for approval by Rome. In New York, Toussaint’s legacy received greater recognition with the co-naming of Church Avenue as Pierre Toussaint Boulevard, thanks to the efforts of the Brooklyn chapter of the Toussaint guild and the city council. 

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, work is being done to answer several historical clarifications requested by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints on the positio for Servant of God Mother Mary Lange (1784-1882), who founded in Baltimore the first congregation of Black Catholic religious sisters, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, and became the first Black Catholic mother superior of a religious congregation. 

The positio explains why the Servant of God should be recognized for her heroic Christian virtues and be declared Venerable. Mother Lange was highly regarded for her commitment to educating Black children and women, establishing homes to care for widows and orphans, and caring for the city when it was struck by cholera. 

Sharon Knecht, the archivist for the Oblate Sisters of Providence and external coordinator for the cause, said the guild is hopeful the historical clarifications requested by Rome will allow the cause to move to the next step of theological examination. 

“It’s all in God’s time,” Knecht said. 

In the meantime, the guild continues to gather reports of prayers answered and healings credited to Mother Lange’s intercession. And the archdiocese is nearing completion of the Mother Mary Lange Catholic School, the city of Baltimore’s first new Catholic school in 60 years.

Gloria Purvis, a leading Black Catholic voice and host of the Gloria Purvis Podcast, told the Register that she is a direct beneficiary of Mother Mary’s heroic faith, along with thousands of other Black children who were educated by the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

“My first experience of religious sisters ever was a Black woman in the habit,” Purvis said, adding that Mother Mary, who emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba, had stopped through Purvis’ hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, on her way to Baltimore, where she would found her religious order and open St. Frances Academy, a Catholic school dedicated to the education of Black youth.

“She recognized the need for education for African American children,” Purvis said. “Through her steadfast faith, many thousands of Black children and I have benefited.”

Purvis wrote about Mother Mary Lange in Black Catholics on the Road to Sainthood (Our Sunday Visitor), a brief introduction to the lives of these heroic Black men and women, which she hopes is the first of many books. Purvis explained that two key ways to promote greater awareness about the “Saintly Six” is to have prayers for their eventual canonization prayed for at Mass and also to teach about them in Catholic schools.

 

Missionary Dynamism 

The newest cause of the “Saintly Six” is Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman (1937-1990), a Catholic intellectual and educator with a missionary heart, who was both an advocate for Black culture and the strengths the Black Christian spiritual tradition has to offer the Church. 

Sister Thea, who grew up in the final throes of the Jim Crow era’s anti-Black violence and segregation, was also a tireless advocate for the beauty and dignity of Black lives and for racial reconciliation. She earned a Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America with a doctoral thesis on St. Thomas More, was a co-founder of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies (IBCS) at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, and composed songs for and helped develop Lead Me, Guide Me, a Catholic hymnal in the African American spiritual tradition.

Redemptorist Father Maurice Nutt, a former student of Sister Thea at IBCS , who is the diocesan liaison for her cause, told the Register that Sister Thea’s cause is still in the investigative phase. The positio is not yet complete. However, the priest said he hopes the positio is finished in time for the release of a new documentary on Sister Thea set to air on ABC in fall 2022.

Sister Thea came into full communion with the Catholic Church from Methodism after being impressed by what Father Nutt called the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration’s “Christian witness of putting faith in action,” particularly through “doing justice, mercy and love,” and their solidarity with the Black American community, especially through education.

“She was very enthralled by missionary dynamism of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration,” Father Nutt said, explaining how Sister Thea discerned she should join the order at its convent in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Father Nutt said Sister Thea was an “embodiment of the joy of the Gospel” and an astute intellectual who emphasized the critical importance of the “spiritual gifts of song, preaching, theology” that African American Catholics bring to the whole Catholic Church.

Father Maurice Nutt said the Black Christian spiritual tradition emphasizes giving both witness and testimony to the Lord Jesus, and Sister Thea embodied how this insight can help form Catholics in the Church into missionary disciples to go to the peripheries of society.

The priest said Sister Thea today would remind the Church that Catholics have a responsibility to heal and reconcile the wounds of racist policy and practice that has left its mark through the present day.

“She would challenge the Church to be church; to be faithful to our creed,” he said, “to be a Church where they know they are Christians by our love.”

Peter Jesserer Smith contributed to Black Catholics on the Road to Sainthood (Our Sunday Visitor).

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