Richness of Black Catholic history in archdiocese

By Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond, Clarion Herald

In February, across the United States, Americans celebrate Black History Month. The celebration actually started in 1926. February was chosen because it is the birth month of two of the most important figures in African-American history – President Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14).

The Archdiocese of New Orleans has a wealth of Black Catholic history to celebrate, which adds a richness to the secular celebration of Black History Month. In 1842, our very own Henriette Delille, a free woman of color, founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, whose mission was to teach and catechize enslaved people at a time before the Civil War when it was illegal to do so. The Sisters of the Holy Family also cared for the elderly by opening up their home as a residence.

Mother Henriette was declared “Venerable” in 2010 by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which since 2005 had pored over her brief writings – “I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I want to live and die for God.” The congregation determined that she had indeed lived a heroic life of Christian virtue. She fought a quiet battle against racism. There were no protests or demonstrations – just a flowering of Christian charity, with her eyes always on the mission of bringing the light of Christ to those who had experienced darkness.

As of Jan. 29, the postulator of Venerable Henriette’s cause in Rome is working with the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, on a healing possibly attributed to her intercession. If the information goes forward and the Vatican determines the healing was outside the realm of medical science, it could be the miracle Venerable Henriette would need for her beatification. We continue to pray for that day, which truly would be a historic moment in New Orleans Catholic history.

Even after the Civil War ended slavery, blacks in the South were denied equal access to voting, employment and education. In this archdiocese, we can celebrate the spiritual wisdom and pastoral care of Archbishop Joseph Rummel, who in 1951 established the archdiocese’s first secondary school for African-American males – St. Augustine High School – which still exists and is staffed by the Josephite Fathers. St. Aug is an important part of our history as an archdiocese.

The Sisters of the Holy Family already had established St. Mary’s Academy (1867) for African-American girls, and St. Katharine Drexel had opened Xavier Preparatory School (1915) and Xavier University (1925) as part of the educational mission of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Using her heiress’ fortune, St. Katharine also funded the formation of numerous Catholic parishes for African-Americans in New Orleans and throughout south Louisiana. What a rich history and great service to God’s people!

But in the 1950s, public and parochial education in New Orleans still was segregated. On March 15, 1953, Archbishop Rummel issued his pastoral letter, “Blessed Are the Peacemakers,” which ordered the desegregation of all Catholic parish activities and organizations. He suspended all Catholic services at Jesuit Bend Mission (1955-58) following an incident in which an African-American priest was stopped from celebrating Mass there.

Archbishop Rummel wrote another pastoral letter in 1956 in which he declared racial segregation morally wrong and sinful. Then, in March 1962, he worked with coadjutor Archbishop John Cody to order the desegregation of all Catholic schools in the archdiocese.

Crosses were burned on his front lawn. Three Catholics who spoke out publicly against the archbishop’s desegregation order were excommunicated. Archbishop Rummel did not waver; he was a man who lived the Gospel in a bold way.

In 1965, in the midst of racial tumult, Bishop Harold Perry was appointed auxiliary bishop of New Orleans, the first black Catholic bishop in the U.S. in the 20th century. Bishop Perry, a native of Lake Charles, was ordained a priest for the Society of the Divine Word in 1944, the 26th black priest ordained in the U.S. At his 1966 episcopal ordination at St. Louis Cathedral, Bishop Perry walked past a group of pickets. A sign held by one of them read: “Another reason why God will destroy the Vatican.” In spite of this initial opposition, Bishop Perry became greatly loved by the people.

Bishop Perry died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1991 at the age of 75. In celebrating his funeral Mass, Archbishop Francis Schulte said: “As the first African-American bishop in this century, Bishop Perry was a symbol of the great changes that have taken place in our church and in our country.”

Bishop Fernand Cheri, our current auxiliary bishop, was deeply touched by Bishop Perry when he was a student at St. John Vianney Prep and, later, when then-Father Cheri was a parochial vicar to Bishop Perry at Our Lady of Lourdes in New Orleans. Bishop Cheri says he was always impressed by Bishop Perry’s calm demeanor and willingness to listen.

There is another person who does not get much notice. Father Aubry Osborn, who was born in Algiers and attended All Saints School, became the first African-American to be ordained a priest of the archdiocese on May 30, 1953. He served at St. Joseph in Gross Tete, north of Baton Rouge, and then served as pastor of St. Paul the Apostle in Baton Rouge and at Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Scotlandville.

Our African-American brothers and sisters have blessed this archdiocese. They have clung to the Catholic faith even when the church, through its human weakness, has not fully supported them. We give thanks to God for their witness of faith.

Questions for Archbishop Aymond may be sent to clarionherald@clarionherald.org.

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