Could Black Catholic Saints Be the US Church’s Hidden Key for Peace in Society?

African-American Catholics have developed a rich spiritual patrimony for 500 years that has nourished holy men and women — six of whom have active causes for canonization.

Father Augustus Tolton in 1887.
Father Augustus Tolton in 1887. (photo: Public domain)

BALTIMORE — They have some of the most powerful stories of forgiveness, love and mercy that the Catholic Church in the United States can offer, but remain largely unknown, even among U.S. Catholics. But as the U.S. bishops seek to promote peace and harmony in America’s communities, the heroic holiness of black Catholic men and women whose causes for canonization are under way could be the impetus to healing that the Church — and U.S. society — is looking for.

Six men and women from the 19th and 20th centuries — Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton, Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Venerable Mother Henriette Delille, Servant of God Mother Mary Lange, Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, and now Servant of God Julia Greeley — are under consideration for canonization. Each one could become the U.S.’ first African-American saint.

The Church has African saints who were their contemporaries, such as St. Charles Lwanga and St. Josephine Bakhita, who was a slave once and whose image is being put on the dome of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. But St. Charles is Ugandan and St. Josephine is Sudanese.

A cause for canonization is a process that is said to cost between $250,000 and $550,000.

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago is the postulator for the cause of Father Tolton, who was born in slavery, became the first black priest in the U.S. and was given a mandate by Rome to be a missionary to the United States. In this exclusive interview with the Register, Bishop Perry discusses the black Catholic spiritual tradition that nourished men and women to respond with love and mercy to all in the face of hatred and injustice and why their stories, and Father Tolton’s, have a powerful testimony that can help the Church heal American society.

Bishop Perry, why is Father Augustus Tolton, Servant of God, a saint for our time?

A couple of reasons: Given the peculiar 19th-century post-war Reconstruction period, which was a pretty tumultuous period for our country, the issue of race by no means was solved by the Civil War, although it ended slavery. The country had no corporate program for assimilating blacks into mainstream society. So they were left kind of haphazardly out there to experience whatever they were going to experience and be treated every which way. [Father Tolton] turned out to be something of a pioneer in race relations: By reason of his priestly ordination, he was immediately disposed to assist anybody. But mainstream society, and even the Church, did not allow blacks and whites to be in the same space together. And when they came together rather naturally — people coming together, whites coming to his parish in Quincy [Illinois], wanting to attend his Masses and hear him preach and have him listen to their confessions — people just recoiled. It was a visual that posed a lot of dissonance for people. The social ambiance just didn’t allow it.

In a sense, he was a pioneer of inclusion and a kind of multiculturalism, before those terms were even coined. In the midst of that, he suffered a great deal and somehow was able to come out heroically, virtue-wise, by his own suffering and the denunciation that was laid against him for allowing all that to happen. Essentially, he was kicked out of Quincy and then came to Chicago to start all over in the last years of his life.


What are your thoughts about the report of the U.S. bishops’ special task force for forging racial reconciliation and peace in our communities?

I applaud Archbishop [Joseph] Kurtz, who put the task force together in the midst of what was happening in a number of cities and towns where young African-Americans were at loggerheads with local law enforcement, to the extent of losing their lives. And the task force was designed to get the bishops to somehow reflect on what we could do in terms of offering some space or ambiance for dialogue, especially with local institutions that do not normally talk to each other: law enforcement, churches, some politicians, social-service agencies, even some of the gangs, that kind of thing. Bringing people together out of a sense of dialogue and, as Archbishop Kurtz says, re-creating or amassing a sense of civility in the midst of it all.

I think the task force was able to convince the bishops that the Church is a respected convener in these kinds of instances: in the midst of trauma, tragedy, even violence, to sponsor a sense of calm and bring people to their senses again; not necessarily curing anything, but at least bringing people to work towards that. So in that sense, the task force has been very valuable.


How can holy African-American men and women, such as Father Tolton, help the Church and society heal from the wounds and divisions over race that we’ve seen?

Part of it is going to be getting their life stories out catechetically. There are 30-some saints being considered from the United States in Rome right now for sainthood. When you look at them as a whole, you might think they’re kind of obscure. We don’t know much about them except in very, very local areas. We can appear to be operating sort of like silos in the Catholic Church: Even though there’s much cross-fertilization, there’s also a lot of separateness. With the Father Tolton cause, we came up with a system we call “Tolton ambassadors,” where in some of the larger cities, such as Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and Atlanta, we’ve got a core of laity that come together to spread the story in areas in which myself and my own office, as postulator for the cause, could not reach, except by visiting them and giving them sort of a pep rally to keep them going. Somehow, these important [candidates for sainthood], I think, are best spread around if we can get the message out about them catechetically, by way of social media and so forth.


What would you say is the spiritual legacy or contribution of black Catholic patrimony to American Catholic life? What insights can we learn from it?

Black people aren’t the only people who have suffered in the world. There are many other groups who have been maligned or martyred or butchered in the course of centuries. Each has a precious story. The black saga is a unique one because it has the chapter of slavery, so it makes that a special story, a unique story. But, if anything, I think blacks image for everybody else a story of how to survive in the midst of protracted disappointment and the word “No” spat in your face for most of your life. The resistance met across the board in just about every institution ever created by civilization, how you get through that and still hold onto your faith in God, still have a sense of hope, and still have some sense of charity toward your neighbor who is not black, I think that’s the legacy of the black struggle.


What about the spiritual traditions of black Catholics? How does the African-American patrimony express itself in the Mass, including the Latin extraordinary form, which you celebrate as well, and what can we learn from it?

It’s a sense of the transcendent, trying to grasp God, who we know is somewhere there, and we’re down here, and we know that he’s able to transform, immanently as well as transcendentally, our lived experience. And people look for that in different ways. There’s a variety of religious experience among African-Americans, but one of those is the “High Church” experience. There are many African-Americans who were brought up, as I was brought up, with the traditional rites, the traditional ceremonies, and there still is a kind of pining for what that is.

The whole question of liturgy and worship is not worked out yet by the Church. Even after Vatican II, a man like Benedict XVI wanted both to somehow dialogue with one another to see what would come up down the line for succeeding generations. The search for the transcendent God is [deeply felt] in the souls of the black experience, there’s no doubt about it — there’s different pictographs of that, but it’s very, very real.


What do you often find in a parish that has a spiritual and liturgical life formed by black Catholic patrimony?

Black Catholic parishes tend to be very vibrant in their worship of God, in their outreach, charity, in their nurturing one another, in their intimacy of community life. Those are some of the strongest features of black Catholic life. Their outreach to the poor — many of them tend not to be very wealthy. They’re working parishes, or shall we say struggling parishes, but they’re very authentic, in their African and American heritage as well as their Catholicism. The ones in the larger cities tend to be more homogenous. A large number of black Catholics participate in other parishes throughout the country. They would not be the majority, but they are part and parcel of the diversity of the parish. The largest African-American parishes would be in places like Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, New York and St. Louis — these would be the largest.


What could the impact on black Americans be if the Church raised up Catholic saints from the African-American experience — examples of holiness they could particularly identify with?

If we had an African-American saint, it would message to African-Americans that we have finally arrived in the Church, that we finally have something to offer, that holiness is possible from amongst those of our ethnic stripe, that the contribution we have been making to the Church for several hundred years is finally recognized, if we could have that first African-American saint.

What can we do in the rest of the Church to help advance the causes of holy African-American men and women and make their stories more widely known in the consciousness of Catholics in the U.S.?

Even among the African-American ones who are proposed for sainthood, the largest interest has been in Father Augustus Tolton and probably Henriette Delille, the founder of the Holy Family Sisters. Mother Mary Lange from Baltimore is more obscure. And Pierre Toussaint, for some reason or another, was the very first cause up and running, but somehow it has dissipated. It no longer seems to have a postulator, and New York might be interested in someone else. I understand they have several causes pending in New York. There’s an annual scholarship benefit dinner under Toussaint’s name in New York, but that seems to be as far as it has gone so far. I believe he is Venerable, and he’s buried there under the high altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, so there’s a great respect there paid to him, but I don’t know what’s holding [up] his cause.

We need to put [their stories] into the catechesis of young people, into social media — the visual is very important to people, because people don’t read much anymore. We need to do that — we need to preach about these people. We need to raise up the anniversaries of their deaths, and births and lives.


Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.