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empty Posted November 2004
Jacqueline Trussell
The Black Catholic Experience
by Jacqueline Trussell
Founder and President,
Chicago, IL

The Black Catholic Experience is part of the long history of Christianity and includes the participation of people of African descent. When we study the Old Testament, we have a better understanding of the New Testament. When we learn about our ancestors, we have insight into who we are as people. When we hear the story of Black Catholics in particular, we gain a deeper appreciation for the religious history of African Americans in general.

An excellent resource for examining the history and origins of Black Catholics can be found in the book, The History of Black Catholics in the United Statesby Cyprian Davis, a Benedictine monk and professor of church history at St. Meinrad School of Theology. Davis tells a story of a people who, while maligned by Black Protestants, were often not fully considered as part of the Roman Catholic Church.

In order to reconstruct the history, Davis turns to baptismal, marriage and death records to construct a more accurate portrayal of the Black Catholic experience. Davis does not neglect the early contributors to the Black Catholic faith and chronicles important participants and events through the 20th century. Below are some of the people, places and events that inform the Black Catholic Experience.

  • Bishop Frumentius--Considered founder of the Church in Ethiopia
  • St. Moses the Black--Became spiritual leader of a group of monks (410)
  • St. Anthony of Egypt--Considered founder of Christian monasticism
  • Pope Victor I--Black Pope, known as the first Latin speaking Pope (186-197)
  • Pope Militades--Black Pope who received the Lateran Palace from the Emperor Constantine (311-314)
  • Pope Gelasius I--Stated that the church was the superior power over the Emperor (492-496)
  • Henrique--Congolese Bishop of Madeira Islands, 1521
  • St. Benedict the Moor--(b. 1526-d. 589) Served in Italy with the "Brown Franciscans"
  • St. Martin de Porres--(b. 1579-d.1639) Called "Father of the Poor" for his charity in Peru
  • Esteban--Spanish speaking African slave, part of expedition that led to the establishment of St. Augustine, Florida
  • St. Augustine, Florida--Oldest non-Indian town in the US, 1565
  • Los Angeles, California--Settled by nine Catholic African Spanish families as Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles, 1781
  • Elizabeth Lange--Founder of Oblate Sisters of Providence, 1829
  • Henriette Delille--Founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family, 1842
  • James Augustine Healy--First Black Catholic priest, 1854 and First Black Catholic Bishop in US, 1875
  • Francis Patrick Healy--Black Catholic priest became president of Georgetown Univ., Washington DC, 1874
  • Augustus Tolton--Black priest served in Illinois, ordained in Rome in 1886
  • Daniel Rudd--Black Catholic lay person founded newspaper, American Catholic Tribune, 1886
  • Charles Uncles--First Black priest ordained in the US, 1891
  • Lincoln Valle--Black Catholic lay person, opened a Catholic mission for Blacks in Milwaukee, 1908
  • Knights of Peter Claver--Benevolent organization for Black Catholics, 1909
  • Xavier University--First Black Catholic institution of higher learning opened in New Orleans, Louisiana, 1915
  • Ladies Auxiliary of Peter Claver--Benevolent organization founded, 1922
  • Thomas Wyatt Turner--Established the Federate Colored Catholics, 1924
  • Harold Perry--Second Black bishop in the US, 1966
  • Eugene Marino--First Black Archbishop, 1988

This list is by no means exhaustive, nor does it include many major events in the Black Catholic experience. Scholars such as M. Shawn Copeland, Diana L. Hayes and Jamie Phelps are developing Black Catholic Theology. Black Catholic ethicists like Bryan N. Massingale and Toinette M. Eugene work in this area.

The Black Catholic experience is rich in history, courage and faith.

"Within the history of every Christian community there comes the time when it reaches adulthood. We, the descendants of Africans brought to these shores, are now called to share our faith and to demonstrate our witness to our risen Lord."
--From What We Have Seen and Heard, the Pastoral Letter of the Black Catholic Bishops of the United States

Other books on Black Catholics:

  • Black and Catholic: The Challenge and Gift of Black Folk, Jamie T. Phelps, 1997
  • Taking Down Our Harps: Black Catholics in the United States, Diana L. Hayes and Cyprian Davis, editors, 1998
  • Stamped With the Image of God: African Americans as God's Image in Black, Cyprian Davis and Jamie Phelps, editors, 2003

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