Spirituality for Today – November 2010 – Volume 15, Issue 4

Black Catholic History Month

By Rev. Raymond Petrucci

A photo of Augustine ToltonFr. Augustine Tolton

Through the lyrics of his song Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, the late Jim Croce described the South side of Chicago as the "baddest part of town." Something really "good" emerged from that area's black community and for its benefit in the latter years of the nineteenth century – Saint Monica Catholic Church. The church was established by Fr. Augustine Tolton who was ordained in 1886 as the first black Catholic priest in the United States. He was born to Catholic parents as a slave in Missouri. His desire to become a priest pressed him beyond the strident racism of his day. Regrettably, he faced that evil even among his own faith community when no seminary in the United States would accept him because of his race. Through the support of a mentor priest, he was invited to study for the priesthood in Italy where, ultimately, he was ordained. This bright, energetic, and charismatic priest made a notable impact among the Catholic faithful in Illinois and, especially, with the six-hundred parishioners of Saint Monica Church. He became known by the sobriquet of "Good Father Gus." Sadly, he would die at the early age of forty-three, a victim of a terrible heat wave that struck Chicago. The Church had lost a great priest. In his honor, Father Augustine Tolton Regional Catholic High School will be built this year in Columbia, Missouri. I recommend the book From Slave to Priest by Sr. Caroline Hemesath.

The story of Father Tolton is a powerful tribute to the challenges and struggles of black Catholics in the United States. November is significant, not only for the celebration of Thanksgiving, All Saints, and All Souls, but, in particular, for all African-American Catholics who join the universal Church in celebrating the feasts of Saint Augustine – a North African, and Saint Martin de Porres – the first black saint of the Western Hemisphere. Regarding events in the then English Colonies, the year before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock the first slaves from Africa landed on the shores of Virginia. One only can imagine what it would be like to arrive in a strange land to be forced into a life of slavery. Add to that indignity, being Catholic in an anti-Catholic America. This double-bladed bigotry has not been eradicated to the present day. A few decades ago, there is a story of a black man who worked as a custodian for a Catholic parish somewhere in the South. He was a Baptist, but expressed such deep affinity for Catholicism that one day the pastor of the parish asked him why he did not enter the Church. His telling reply, "Father, this is the South. I'm black. You want me to be Catholic too!" As great a nation as the United States is, from its foundation it has labored under the weight of prejudices toward the African immigrant as well as immigrants for all other countries of the world.

One of the most important missions of all Catholics in the United States and Americans of every stripe is to establish a society where justice and equality are indeed a reality. Overcoming the stumbling blocks of fear and ignorance will take a strong spirit of determination and reconciliation; it will require a willingness to understand the feel of life experienced by the other. By this effort, the anxieties and suspicions rooted in prejudice can be addressed.

Dogs bark at everyone they do not know.
– Heraclitus

The contributions to the Church and to society by black Catholics such as Fr. Augustine Tolton, Sr. Elizabeth Drexel, founder of Xavier University in New Orleans, and countless others are remembered and celebrated this month. The three million black Catholics and all Catholics in the United States must rejoice in what has been accomplished and strive to add greatly to this work of faith.

Throughout the world, Catholics of African descent number over two hundred million. Three early popes were from Africa. The founder of Western monasticism, Saint Anthony of Egypt, was the African. The presence and contributions of African Catholics range from the earliest centuries of the Catholic Church to the present. Each generation is called to maintain and spread the faith of the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." Let Catholics from all the nations of the world rejoice in the Gospel and the gifts presented by members of every race who bear the name of Catholic.