Give praise for our past

By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald

Over the last 300 years, one bold person after another has stepped forward to defend and fortify the faith of New Orleans’ black Catholics, even in the most impossible of times – such as when the city was the 19th-century epicenter of America’s slave trade, and even more recently, during the decades in which Jim Crow laws relegated black Catholics to the back pews and choir lofts of the city’s white churches.

Auxiliary Bishop Fernand Cheri, a New Orleans native, urged Catholics of all races and cultures to celebrate the proud past of the local black Catholic church and to look to the future with hope, even as lingering racism makes some skeptical of the gifts Catholics of color bring to the church.

God provides strong leaders

“God raised up champions of hope – women and men, black and white – who gave us hope and upheld the dignity of the human person,” said Bishop Cheri, speaking to a packed auditorium at Notre Dame Seminary during the Sept. 7 Tricentennial Lecture Series installment “All Along the Pilgrim Journey,” which traced the Black Catholic experience in New Orleans.

Bishop Cheri reeled off a litany of those Catholic champions, beginning with the Ursuline Sisters, who upon their arrival in 1727 defied France’s “Code Noir” restrictions on the education of blacks by boldly evangelizing free people of color and enslaved Africans. 

“They started faith formation, and in doing that, they had to educate blacks – eight to be exact,” he noted.

“St. Augustine Church, almost from its beginnings in 1841, was the church family for whites, free people of color and slaves, and ironically it is still a mixed community today,” said Bishop Cheri, pointing to an early example of the richness of faith that can be found in diversity.

Bishop Cheri paid special tribute to Venerable Henriette Delille and her companions, free women of color who boldly defied civil and religious codes of the antebellum South by founding the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1842 to nurse the sick and elderly and educate the enslaved.

“By supreme sacrifice, for the poor and the homeless of the city of New Orleans, without any government or even church assistance, they stepped forward and did what was necessary,” Bishop Cheri said. “They were resolved to be an apostolic community despite opposition from the civil laws of the South and the city, the harassment of naysayers for wearing religious garb and even the tribulations of the yellow fever epidemic. Without a doubt, God was the source and strength of their lives.”

Educators, caregivers

After the Civil War, the archdiocese established numerous churches and schools for black Catholics with the help of religious communities including the Sisters of the Holy Family, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (led by St. Katharine Drexel), the Josephites, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the Vincentians and the Divine Word Missionaries.

This growing demographic of Catholics was not always allowed to bring in its own style of liturgical worship. When secular musical genres such as blues and jazz crept into Masses, the practice was “halted only by a mandate from Rome in 1906, which called for all to return to Gregorian chant,” Bishop Cheri said.

“This pushed the second line out of the church for a while,” he said, noting that in 1968, St. Francis de Sales in New Orleans was the first Catholic church in the U.S. to “sustain and develop” Gospel music-supported worship.

Other local black Catholic claims to fame include establishing Xavier, first as a secondary school in 1915 and later as the nation’s only black Catholic university; the 1953 ordination of Father Aubrey Osborne, the first black priest ordained from Notre Dame Seminary; and the integration of Catholic schools by Archbishop Joseph Rummel in 1961, in defiance of strong community pushback.

The black Catholic church has given New Orleans and the wider world blessings that include the Knights and Ladies of St. Peter Claver, one of the only diocesan offices of Black Catholic Ministries in the United States, and the Institute of Black Catholic Studies at Xavier, which since 1980 has broken open Scripture and church teachings from both “a righteous black consciousness and an authentic Catholic tradition,” Bishop Cheri said.

“These individuals and moments challenged the Catholic community of the Archdiocese of New Orleans to not only change the narrative of the church, but to affirm that we share common journeys together,” he said. “We were called to rise above the Code Noir and Jim Crow laws of our times that supported the politics of fear and anger and the foundation of racism in the South.”

Bishop Cheri thanked God for giving these “foundations of faith and courage the gifts, the talents and grace to make a way out of no way, over and over and over again” and asked audience members of all races if they had the same caliber of love in their hearts to create a world in which all gifts are celebrated. 

Personal challenges

Bishop Cheri concluded by sharing an incident from his young manhood that still stings him, but that he has managed to deal with through God’s grace.

“I was refused (diaconate) ordination because I was told by one of my formation advisors, ‘You are a black man; you cannot do anything independently from anybody,’” said Bishop Cheri, recalling that one of the teens whom he tutored gave him words of wisdom that helped him over his feelings of rejection.

“(The student told me), ‘I know you’re a good minister and God knows you’re a good minister, and it’s God who ordains anyway,’” Bishop Cheri said. “It gave me the courage to refocus myself on whom I’m called to serve and who I’ve always got to keep in front of me as I move and live and share my life with others.

“It’s God you serve, and when God puts somebody in your face, whether they’re black, Italian, German, Vietnamese, Korean or whatever, that’s God’s child in front of you!”

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

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