Black Catholics Matter!

From the Associate Pastor

When Amanda Gorman read her powerful poem at President Biden’s inauguration, many people were mesmerized. Her poem was quickly copied and pasted, reposted, and retweeted all over social media. At first, people didn’t believe she was Catholic (she actually IS Catholic and a parishioner of St. Brigid Church in Los Angeles). It is as if it was hard to imagine that someone who is black can also be Catholic.

Black Catholic Lives Matter
Black Catholic Lives Matter

Unfortunately, many Catholics have little knowledge about the presence of Black Catholics, who bring with them their own unique contributions that enrich our universal Church. Since February is Black History Month, let us look at a couple of prominent Black Catholics in the history of our church in the United States (biographies adapted from https://www.nbccongress.org/black-catholic-sainthood.html):

Father Augustus Tolton Augustus was born to two slaves, Peter Paul Tolton and his wife Martha Jane, on April 1, 1854. With the outbreak of the War between the States, Peter Paul hoped to gain freedom for his family and escaped to the North where he served in the Union Army, and was one of the 180,000 blacks who were killed in the war. His widow decided that she would see her husband’s quest for freedom realized in his children. After managing a crossing of the Mississippi River, she made her way to Illinois and settled in the small town of Quincy. When her children attempted to attend Catholic school, parents of the other school children were not happy, so to avoid a messy situation, the School Sisters of Notre Dame decided to tutor the Tolton children privately.

As Augustus grew older he began displaying an interest in the priesthood. However, no diocesan seminaries in the United States were willing to enroll a black seminarian at the time. Finally, in 1878, the Franciscan College in Quincy accepted him, and two years later he was enrolled at the college of the Propaganda Fidei in Rome. After completing his courses there, Augustus Tolton was ordained on April 24, 1886. His first assignment was in Quincy, and he was later given a parish on the south side of the city. It became the center from which he ministered to all the Black Catholics of Chicago. He addressed the First Catholic Colored Congress in Washington DC in 1889. He died on July 8, 1897 at the young age of 43.

In 2015, the Cause for Canonization of Fr. Augustus Tolton, begun in 2010, received affirmation of the juridical validity of the Archdiocesan inquiry into his life and virtues by the Congregation for Causes of Saints, and Fr. Tolton received the distinction of Servant of God. Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA A self-proclaimed, “old folks child,” Bertha Elizabeth Bowman was born in 1937 and reared in Canton, Mississippi. As a child she converted to Catholicism by the influence of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity who were her teachers and nurtured her faith. The decision to convert to Catholicism was rooted in what she witnessed: she was drawn to the Catholic Church but by the example of how Catholics seemed to love and care for one another, most especially the poor and needy. For Bertha, religion was real and relevant: people put their faith into action. In 1953 at the age of fifteen she told her family and friends she wanted to join the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and left the familiar Mississippi terrain to venture off to the unfamiliar town of LaCrosse, Wisconsin where she would be the only African-American member in the convent. As a Sister, she was given the name, “Sister Mary Thea.” She was trained to become a teacher. She taught at all grade levels, eventually earning her doctorate and becoming a college professor. The turbulent 1960s was a period of transformation in a nation torn by racial strife and division. The country was confronted by the quest for justice and racial equality for all Americans. It was also a time of transformation for Sister Thea. The liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council encouraged her to rediscover her African-American religious heritage and spirituality. In 1984, Thea was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. This doesn’t diminish her evangelical zeal. She continued to challenge the Catholic Church – all the way to the bishops – to continue to evangelize the Black community and to promote inclusivity and full participation of Blacks in church leadership. She died in Mississippi on March 30, 1990. On her tombstone is inscribed, “She tried,” to honor her wish: “I want people to remember that I tried to love the Lord and that I tried to love them.”

Tolton, begun in 2010, received affirmation of the juridical validity of the Archdiocesan inquiry into his life and virtues by the Congregation for Causes of Saints, and Fr. Tolton received the distinction of Servant of God.

Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA

   A self-proclaimed, “old folks child,” Bertha Elizabeth Bowman was born in 1937 and reared in Canton, Mississippi.  As a child, she converted to Catholicism by the influence of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity who were her teachers and nurtured her faith.  The decision to convert to Catholicism was rooted in what she witnessed:  she was drawn to the Catholic Church but by the example of how Catholics seemed to love and care for one another, most especially the poor and needy.  For Bertha, religion was real and relevant:  people put their faith into action. 

   In 1953 at the age of fifteen, she told her family and friends she wanted to join the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and left the familiar Mississippi terrain to venture off to the unfamiliar town of LaCrosse, Wisconsin where she would be the only African-American member in the convent. As a Sister, she was given the name, “Sister Mary Thea.” She was trained to become a teacher. She taught at all grade levels, eventually earning her doctorate and becoming a college professor. The turbulent 1960s was a period of transformation in a nation torn by racial strife and division.  The country was confronted by the quest for justice and racial equality for all Americans.  It was also a time of transformation for Sister Thea. The liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council encouraged her to rediscover her African-American religious heritage and spirituality.

   In 1984, Thea was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. This doesn’t diminish her evangelical zeal. She continued to challenge the Catholic Church – all the way to the bishops – to continue to evangelize the Black community and to promote inclusivity and full participation of Blacks in church leadership. She died in Mississippi on March 30, 1990. On her tombstone is inscribed, “She tried,” to honor her wish: “I want people to remember that I tried to love the Lord and that I tried to love them.”

Peace, Fr. Sam

Fr. Sam Nasada, OFM

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Fr. Sam Nasada, OFM, Associate Pastor

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