Xavier University to be ‘hub’ for black saint canonization

Xavier University of Louisiana and its Institute for Black Catholic Studies (IBCS) will become the new hub for the advancement of sainthood causes of African American Catholics, it was announced July 31 by university president Dr. Reynold Verret at the university’s St. Katharine Drexel chapel.

Privy to this historic announcement were attendees of the 2018 Joint Conference of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus (NBCCC), the National Black Sisters Conference (NBSC), the National Black Catholic Seminarians Association and the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons that was held in New Orleans. 

Dr. Verret said Xavier and its IBCS will serve as hosts and administrators, and Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry will be moderator and chair of the center, whose goal is to unite all guilds advancing the causes of black sainthood. 

Bishop Perry is the postulator of the cause of Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton, the first recognized African American priest.  Father Tolton has the title “servant of God” at this stage in his cause.

The center’s initial focus will be on the canonization of Father Tolton, Venerable Henriette Delille, Servant of God Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange and Servant of God Julia Greeley, Verret said, with the hopes, this fall, of adding another ground-breaking black Catholic, Sister Thea Bowman, who taught at IBCS and was recently declared a “Servant of God” by bishops.

› Sister Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, was renowned for her preaching. She died in March 1990 at age 52. Her cause was opened in 2017 and she was declared a “Servant of God.”

The eventual goal, Verret said, is to establish “a resource center at Xavier with scholarly work on the lives and work of the … soon-to-be six candidates for sainthood and St. Katharine Drexel and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.” 

Glimpse of each saint

A brief update was given during the announcement by promoters of the causes of five of the sainthood candidates: 

› Father A. Gerard Jordan, representing Bishop Perry, described Pierre Toussaint as a former slave and hairdresser who purchased freedom for his family. Father Jordan said the five candidates were universal saints for everybody, and their causes are “not in competition but in communion” to recognize black Americans who are people of virtue.

› Father Jordan also talked about Father Augustus Tolton, a former slave from Missouri whose family used the Underground Railroad to find freedom in Illinois. He trained for the priesthood in Rome because he was refused entrance into American seminaries and was ordained in 1886. He suffered threats while pastoring in his Illinois hometown and moved to Chicago to found St. Monica’s, the city’s first black parish. “His life was a life of courage,” Father Jordan said. The cause for his canonization was proclaimed in 2011. He was named a “Servant of God” in 2012. The Congregation for Causes of the Saints declared affirmatively to the validity of the inquiry into his life in 2015. His remains were exhumed in 2016, and his positio was approved so his cause can move forward to the pope.

› Oblate Sister of Providence Magdala Gilbert discussed Servant of God Mary Elizabeth Lange “as a no-nonsense woman who did what she had to do.” 

She worked to educate African American children when it wasn’t popular. “When you have God at your side, you fear nothing.” Mother Lange’s cause began in 1991, but was recently assigned a new postulator in hopes that the positio of her life will be completed this October.  

› Sister of the Holy Family Greta Jupiter expanded on the cause of her order’s founder, Venerable Henriette Delille, explaining the steps to sainthood. Mother Henriette Delille was declared Venerable in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI. Two miracles attributed to her are being examined.

› Mary Leising articulated Denver’s “Angel of Charity” Julia Greeley’s progress. She was born in Hannibal, Missouri, but worked and walked the streets of Denver, Colorado, collecting food, coal and clothing in a little red wagon and delivered the goods at night to the needy. She joined the Secular Franciscan Order in 1901. A guild to research her sainthood was established in 2011. Her cause was opened by Denver Archbishop Sam Aquilla in 2016. On Aug. 10, the diocese will close its investigative phase and send its findings to Rome.

Tour highlights 

Xavier University was the last stop on the conference’s Black Catholic Enrichment Tour that treated attendees to significant sites in the life of African Americans in New Orleans. The conference – celebrating the 50th anniversary of the NBCCC and the NBSC forming strong black Catholic men and women of service – used the tour to illustrate its theme of “We’ve Come A Mighty Long Way!” 

“Welcome. You are standing on holy ground,” were the first words tour participants heard when entering St. Augustine Church, founded in 1841, in New Orleans’ historic Tremé  neighborhood.

Local conference committee member Jari Honora and New Orleans Auxiliary Bishop Fernand Cheri explained that St. Augustine Church saw whites, free people of color and slaves worshipping together; was where Venerable Henriette Delille, founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1842, began her ministry to the poor and elderly; and civil rights activists Homer Plessy, attorney A.P. Tureaud and many musicians prayed. It is also home to the “Tomb of the Unknown Slave.”

Along the route, Bishop Cheri referenced Congo Square as a place where free people of color congregated, the Mahalia Jackson Performing Arts Center (named after the New Orleans-born gospel singer) and how native Louis Armstrong was baptized Catholic at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church on Canal Street.

When passing Corpus Christi-Epiphany Church, which merged after Hurricane Katrina, Corpus Christi Parish, founded in 1916, it was noted as once being the largest African American parish in the world, considered “Queen of the Josephite missions.” Bishop Cheri recalled there being about 53 majority-black parishes in New Orleans; now, the number is close to 24 parishes and three predominantly black schools. 

At the Sisters of the Holy Family Motherhouse in Gentilly, Holy Family Sister Laura Mercier unpacked the road to canonization for Mother Henriette Delille. When canonized, she will be the first native-born African American saint. “Her life will be a reminder that everyone can be a saint, no matter what color they are,” Sister Laura said, imploring attendees to spread the news about Henriette Delille and other African Americans approaching sainthood.

Why Xavier

Blessed Sacrament Sister Eva Marie Lumas, interim director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies, said Xavier University is a special place that understands the woes and giftedness of the African American community and a perfect place to honor black Catholic ancestors who walked before and contributed much to society and the church.

She said elevating these African Americans to sainthood is “a witness to advancing some who are ordinary people who did extraordinary things, and extraordinary people that understood the frame of reference of ordinary things …” While they might not have seen the fruits of their labors in their lifetime, these candidates for sainthood did what was right anyway by standing tall, walking, talking and showing how to do it right, she said.

“It is both appropriate and significant that this joint effort to promote the cause for sainthood for these six extraordinary individuals should originate at Xavier,” Verret said.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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