The Painful, Resilient History of America's Black Catholics

Black Catholics have a long history in the Americas that can teach the wider Church much about the importance of forgiveness, contemplation, community and holistic spirituality, but more needs to be done to welcome them.

(photo: John Gomez via Shutterstock/CNA)

WASHINGTON — For Father Stephen Thorne, Black History Month is not only a chance to remember the struggles faced by the African-American community throughout the centuries.

It is also an opportunity to learn from the witness of one of the oldest communities of Catholics in the United States.

This witness of black Catholics, in the face of discrimination and animus, is a gift all Catholics can learn from, said Father Thorne, an African-American priest in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

“The resilience of African-American Catholics today is a sign of [their] great faith,” he told CNA.

Father Thorne is an administrator for the National Black Catholic Congress, which dates back to the late 19th century. The organization aims to promote the evangelization of African-American communities and improve their spiritual and physical conditions.

The history of black Catholics in America reaches back centuries.

“African-Americans have been Catholics since the earliest days of the colonies. We’ve been a part of the Church since the beginning. We’re not newcomers to the Catholic Church,” Father Thorne said.

In the 16th and 17th century, Spanish laws freed slaves who converted to Catholicism. Some of these freed slaves and their descendants formed their own settlement in the region that would become Florida.

Meanwhile, in Maryland, in the decades before the American Revolution, Jesuit missionaries evangelized black slaves and freed men. Over the centuries, large African-American Catholic populations settled in cities, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago and numerous cities throughout the South.

However, the Catholic Church did not escape the country’s history of racism and segregation — a history that made many black Catholics feel unwelcome.

“A lot of things came about, like in our [broader] American culture, because African-Americans were not welcome,” Father Thorne said. In many places, Jim Crow laws and discriminatory practices applied to some parts of the Church, particularly in the South.

Parishes were segregated with separate Mass times or even separate physical parishes for white and black parishioners. Even in parishes where black attendees were welcome, they would sometimes have to sit at the back of the church and receive Communion after the rest of the congregation.


Fighting Racism

The Knights of Columbus was one major group that pushed for racial equality long before it was socially acceptable.

The Catholic fraternal benefit society was founded in New Haven, Conn., in 1882, during a time when Catholics faced suspicion and hostility.

When the Ku Klux Klan rose to prominence in the 1920s, its members targeted Catholics, along with blacks and Jews. The Klan burned crosses to protest the presidential run of Catholic (and Knight of Columbus) Al Smith.

The Knights took strong action for racial integration under John W. McDevitt, its Supreme Knight from 1964 to 1977. When he learned that the New Orleans hotel hosting the Knights’ 1964 Supreme Convention did not allow African-Americans, he threatened to move the convention to another venue. The hotel changed its policy.

McDevitt also played a role in ensuring that local councils were not racially exclusive. Some Southern chapters of the organization failed to comply with national directives, and in some areas, racism kept black Catholic men out of the society.

“When it became apparent that some councils were not following the national policy on integration, John McDevitt really forced the issue and made it very clear that this was not going to be tolerated,” Andrew Walther, vice president for communications and media at the Knights of Columbus, told CNA in a 2013 interview.

Meanwhile, Catholic groups specifically serving the African-American population had also formed. The National Black Catholic Congress first gathered in 1889. The Knights of Peter Claver, a Catholic fraternal society for men of color, was formed in 1909, when racism in some parts of the South prevented them from joining the Knights of Columbus.

The society is named after St. Peter Claver, the patron saint of African-Americans. A 17th-Century Jesuit missionary, he ministered to African slaves in Spanish colonies.

The Knights of Peter Claver worked to support various parish, diocesan and community objectives, including ministry and aid to those in need. They worked alongside the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in their aims for the advancement of civil rights, said Fredron DeKarlos Blackmon, Supreme Knight and CEO of the Knights of Peter Claver. They also opened auxiliary and junior divisions for women and for youth and remained open to people of all ethnicities.

“Even while American priests were sent as missionaries to Africa, Blacks in the United States were treated as second-class citizens all those many decades ago,” recalled Blackmon.

“The history of the Knights and our presence in the Church today is an example of how we are many parts, but we are all one Body in Christ,” Blackmon told CNA.


Facing a Painful History

Father Thorne said it is important for Catholics to grapple with the history of discrimination within the American Church. With these mistakes, he said, “The only way we’re going to never repeat them is to know them.”

In the meantime, although much has changed, “a lot still needs to change,” Father Thorne said.

“Even if we don’t have overt racism, there’s still a lot of people who feel disconnected from the Church,” he said, pointing to what he sees as “systemic” problems that remain, such as a lack of African-American principals and other models of leadership in Catholic schools and other Catholic institutions.

Father Thorne also suggested a general need for “a greater sense of welcome” in the Church that respects both cultural differences and the liturgy.

“The Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. It’s what we profess on Sundays. Now we have to live it,” he said.

He cited Pope St. John Paul II’s 1987 remarks to black Catholics in New Orleans. The Pope said that the Church must be a home for all persons, regardless of culture or race.

Father Thorne said this is a goal that he aims to create in his own parish. The key to such hospitality is “getting to know people.” This approach is common in many African-American parishes. It’s a “gift that African-Americans bring to the Church,” the priest said.

Black Catholic bishops of the United States, in their 1984 letter, “What We Have Seen and Heard,” highlighted other gifts African-American communities offer. These include forgiveness, contemplation, community and holistic spirituality.

“Those are things I think very much the Church is hungering for today,” Father Thorne said.


Witnesses of Holiness

He praised the witness of faithful African-American Catholics as a gift to the Church.

The Church in the United States, he said, has a “wonderful, great history of people who overcame such great oppression and sin, in terms of how they were treated, but knew the Lord and continued to serve the Lord.” These witnesses overcame “such tremendous odds because they knew God loved them.”

These were Catholics like Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton, who was born a slave. He became the first publicly known black Catholic priest when he was ordained in 1886.

Father Thorne called his story a “great testimony,” noting that the priest had faced challenges even to attend seminary. Instead of becoming bitter or stumbling over the obstacles in his way, he “heard that call that was even stronger than the reality of racism.”

Other examples of African-American Catholics with open causes for sainthood include Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Mother Henriette Delille and Mother Mary Lange.

Their witnesses are among the myriad gifts that the African-American community provides the Church, Father Thorne continued.

“If all of us can increase our knowledge of African-American Catholics, not just in the 29 days of February, but throughout the year, how much better would we be as Catholics and as people?”


The National Black Catholic Congress provides more information on the history of black Catholics and other resources at its website.