Pray Tell is happy to welcome Darnell St. Romain and Darrell St. Romain as guest posters for Black Catholic History month. This is the first of several posts. Thanks to contributor Alan Hommerding for facilitating these posts.
November is Black Catholic History Month. 2020 is the year when protesters cried out over Black Blood and Black Bodies that died in the streets at the hands of white police officers. 2020 is the year when The United States of America elected its first Black, Asian Woman as Vice President. 2020 is the year when some people suddenly became “woke” to the struggles Black Americans have lived for centuries. 2020 is the year when “normal” existed no more.
In this Black Catholic History Month, it might be helpful to hear from some marginalized voices about the history of their ancestors. We are Darnell and Darrell St. Romain, identical twins from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Growing up in the Black Catholic Parish of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, we remember worship that celebrated our belief in Jesus Christ and our identity as unapologetically Black.
The history of Black Catholics in The United States dates to the 16th century. In St. Augustine, Florida, both enslaved and free people of color helped established the oldest city in America. In 1693, Spain offered freedom to enslaved Africans who converted to Catholicism. Just North of St. Augustine in Fort Mose, former enslaved Africans established the oldest free Black city in the United States.
Black Catholics began to settle in several regions around the country—notably in Louisiana, California, and Maryland. During the 19th century, women of color formed religious communities. In 1829 several women in Baltimore, Maryland’s Haitian refugee community began educating children in their homes. These women established the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious congregation to accept women of color. Elizabeth Lange was the founder and first superior of this order. Elizabeth Lange today is known as Servant of God, Mother Mary Lange. Thirteen years later in 1842, Henriette Delille and Juliette Gaudin founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans, Louisiana. This order accepted racially mixed women and worked primarily with slaves and the poor. In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI declared Henriette Delille a Venerable.
Many obstacles and racial barriers filled the extraordinary road to priestly ordination for Fr. Augustus Tolton. Born in 1854 in Missouri, then a slave holding state, Fr. Tolton and his family moved to Quincy, IL at the onset of the Civil War. Fr. Tolton attended St. Peter’s school and it was there that Fr. Peter McGirr noticed that Augustus might be an excellent candidate for the priesthood. Augustus graduated from St. Peter’s school in 1872. Augustus attended St. Francis Solano College in Quincy from 1878 to 1880; however, his presence caused many white students to threaten to leave the college.
Having completed the prerequisites to enter the seminary, Bishop John Baltes of the Diocese of Alton promised to pay for Augustus’s education. Unfortunately, every seminary Augustus applied to in this country denied him because of his race. With the help of Franciscan Fr. Richardt, Urban College, the seminary attached to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome admitted Augustus. After six years of study, Cardinal Parocchi ordained Augustus into the priesthood at St. John Lateran. Fr. Augustus Tolton became the first black priest to serve in the United States. In 2019 Pope Francis declared Fr. Tolton Venerable. It was not until 1920 that the Society of the Divine Word Missionaries (SVD) opened St. Augustine seminary in Bay St. Louis, MS to accept Blacks for priestly formation. The SVD missionaries would later staff St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Baton Rouge where the St. Romains grew up.
One cannot mention the History of Black Catholics without mentioning Sister Thea Bowman, Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA). Recently, the US Bishops endorsed Sister Bowman’s cause for canonization on November 14, 2018. Shortly before Sister Bowman died, she addressed the US Bishops about being Black and Catholic:
“What does it mean to be Black and Catholic? It means that I come to my Church fully functioning. That doesn’t frighten you, does it? I come to my Church fully functioning. I bring myself, my Black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become, I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as a gift to the Church.
Sister Bowman is expressing how most Black Catholics feel. We are Black and we are Catholic, and we do not have to choose.”
Black Catholics had to endure racism and racial oppression. These include only sitting in pews in the back of the church; going to Communion last; being denied admission to seminaries and schools; having their very existence in Catholic (white) spaces questioned. But God! In the words of the Negro Spiritual: “In that great getting up morning!” These words express Black resistance to a racial caste system. It expresses the hope that one day, one great day, we will no longer face the trials of this world, where hatred is no more, sickness is no more, denial of systemic racism is no more. Ultimately resistance is eschatology for enslaved Africans and their descendants. To speak of hope, to dream of life is how Black Catholics “got over,” to sing and thus manifest that “great getting up morning!”
We thought it might be helpful to include a YouTube clip to illustrate the Black Worship Experience. Here is a clip of the Wilmington Chester Mass Choir singing “Ride On, King Jesus,” the phrase “In that great getting up morning.”
Photographs: Mother Mary Lange (far left) and schoolchildren; Henriette de Lille; Augustus Tolton; Thea Bowman
What an informative and inspiring essay.
Thank you Darnell and Darrell!
When I gave ministry retreats for the lay formation program of the Archdiocese of Chicago, I became acquainted with the “Tolton scholars,” a scholarship program. But I never knew Tolton’s own story and the background, so I found that enlightening. And it was also news to me that the Divine Word Missionaries were instrumental in admitting the first blacks to seminary in the United States. There is much here to ponder and the work that remains to be done will build on these and other courageous forbears in faith. Thank you for this treasure trove of history!
Is there an affinity with the Franciscan charism going on here too? I noticed Thea Bowman’s community is Franciscan, and I am familiar with the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary who are just now selling their house in Harlem. Their story is a brave one too, but after going through a period when it was assumed the community was dying out, they revived, and now have new members and a renewed apostolate among the poor in New York City. The journey continues.
Mrs. Rita Ferrone,
Thank you for your affirming comment. I am not sure of an affinity to Franciscan charism. I would need to research that aspect more. I do know that countless and unknown Black Saints have carried our (all ethnicities) communities for years and will do so for years to come.
The struggle continues and all I can do is tell my story and Thank God for the example of our elders and ancestors.