A winding road to canonization for black saints

By Richard Meek, Contributing Writer

ST. AMANT, La. – Emotion, fueled by centuries of oppression but buoyed with the idealism of hope, permeated the nearly 100-year-old walls of Holy Rosary Church in St. Amant on a steamy Saturday morning.

More than 200 people gathered at Holy Rosary on Aug. 17 for “A Day of Reflection: African-Americans on the Path to Sainthood.” The day focused on six African Americans whose causes for sainthood are in varying stages. 

Currently, there are no African-American saints.

Speakers examined the lives of the candidates, who include Venerable Henriette Delille of New Orleans, Venerable Father Pierre Toussaint of New York, Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange of Baltimore, Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, Julia Greeley of Denver and Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration Thea Bowman of Canton, Mississippi. 

Encountered many obstacles

But the speakers provided much more than a glimpse into the lives of the would-be saints. The presenters spoke of the difficulties each of the candidates faced and discussed the abuse some suffered and how they used their own faith to persevere and lead lives as “servants of God.” 

The presenters used the lives of the saints to intersperse inspirational messages that challenged those in attendance, which transcended race and ethnicity. 

“I find it very interesting most of (candidates for sainthood) are from the 19th century,” said Bishop Joseph N. Perry of Chicago, postulator of the cause for Father Tolton of Chicago. “If you can imagine the historical topography of that area, these six people – with the exception of Thea Bowman – emerged in an atmosphere of great paradox and contradiction. 

“And these five emerged in that period which was extremely ambivalent and vicious toward black people.”

Holy Rosary pastor Father Joshua Johnson, the lone African-American priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, challenged the attendees regarding their own dedication to their spiritual lives. He said people will have various reasons for not having Christ accompanying them on their spiritual journeys.

No image, no reflection

He said some people will push it off until they have kids or wait until they’re retired.

“When I’m retired, I’m going to play bingo,” Father Johnson said as a trickle of laughter could be heard. 

“So why do we push it off? The common reason is we don’t see ourselves represented in the church. If I don’t see myself in the artwork, the stained glass, maybe it’s not for me.”

He said it’s the same rule for saints.

“Maybe (that’s the reason) we don’t feel we can be saints,” Father Johnson said. “We don’t see us in the church. It’s changing today; it’s a new day.”

Father Tony Ricard of the Archdiocese of New Orleans immediately commanded the attention of the gathering when he began his presentation on Mother Henriette Delille by entering from the back of the church singing “Oh, Freedom,” which was a post-Civil War, African-American freedom song as well as one often associated with the civil rights movement.

Father Ricard told of times when slave masters attempted to control how African-Americans were allowed to pray. 

He recalled how slaves would go out into the woods to pray at night. To ensure not being caught, the slaves would post a “listener,” whose job was to walk around the mansion throughout the night so as to be able to warn others, if necessary. 

“They would pray like never before,” Father Ricard said, adding they were celebrating good music, good preaching and faith.

“They had to shout, they had to sing,” he added, tying those practices to the upbeat and rousing music heard even today in many predominantly African-American churches. 

Father Ricard said people today need to model their lives after Venerable Henriette.

“Will we be on that same journey of faith, not worried whether or not outside of my tomb will have ‘St.’ but will (people) feel the power of God’s love (in us)?” he asked. “(Will people say) ‘I know for a fact, without a shadow of a doubt, that this was a servant of God.’”

Baton Rouge Bishop Michael G. Duca said he could not help being drawn into the mystery of God’s love by seeing the beautiful faces of the candidates for sainthood at the altar. 

“And it reminds us, when saints look like us, they are part of the American culture, walking the same path, they are part of our family,” he said. “It is my privilege to be a part of this today. I am just beginning to understand the vitality and questions and challenges of the African-American community here.”

Battle for acceptance

Bishop Perry detailed the life of Father Tolton and how his path to becoming the country’s first African-American priest can be traced from his roots along the shores of the Mississippi River in Missouri, through Rome and back to Chicago. Bishop Perry noted how there was fierce renunciation of the Catholic Church from the Protestant community for defying the laws that the major religious institutions of the United States could not promote or accept black people.

“Was Tolton really a priest or a fake priest?” Bishop Perry asked. 

Even Father Tolton’s colleagues among the clergy organized against him, and when white people began attending his Mass at his parish in Quincy, Illinois, the bishop at the time told him to minister to black people only, and “leave the white people alone.”

Father Tolton eventually moved to Chicago, where he was welcomed by the archbishop at the time. Father Tolton helped establish St. Monica, the first African-American church in the area, and the congregation rapidly blossomed from 30 to more than 600.

Speaking of the six African-American candidates for sainthood, Bishop Perry said, “We are in an unprecedented time. It will be a celebrated event when that happens. Hopefully, each will be canonized in our lifetime.”

Father Johnson said that as each of the candidates are canonized, church and schools will be named after them they will be depicted in artwork and stained-glass windows.

“We’ll see canonized saints that look like us,” he said. “That will inspire us to say ‘me too.’”

Richard Meek is the editor and general manager of The Catholic Commentator in Baton Rouge.

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