Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Black Catholics In The USA (Article Excerpts & Comments)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a two part series about African American Catholicism. Part I [formerly titled "African American Catholics...) presents some historical information and comments about Black Catholics in the United States.

Click for Part II of this series. Part II [formerly titled "Seven Videos Of African American Catholic Gospel Music"] showcases seven videos of Black Catholics in the United States singing Gospel music. Selected comments from the discussion threads of some of those videos are also included in that post.

Note that the focus of this series is on African American Catholics only and not on other Black Catholics from the Caribbean, South American, Africa, and elsewhere who are now living in the United States.

The content of this post is presented for historical, cultural, and religious purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

From The National Black Catholic Congress: A Brief History of African American Catholics
Adapted from Fr. Cyprian Davis, OSB
"Slavery in the Antebellum U.S.

Slavery was a cruel social institution that corrupted the entire history of the United States. It divided the nation. It divided religion. It touched every part of the Catholic Church. In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI condemned slavery in the document Supremo Apostolatus Fastigio, but this made little impact. Catholic slaveholders did not consider slavery immoral, since the Bible did not forbid it. Many priests and religious sisters owned slaves. So did some bishops. Even some African American Catholics had slaves. A black person might purchase a slave in order to be able to marry him or her and the spouse remained, legally, a slave....
Black Priests in the United States

The first African American priests were James Augustine Healy (1830-1900), Patrick Francis Healy, S.J. (1834-1910), and Alexander Sherwood Healy (1836-1874). The Healy brothers were three of ten children born in Georgia to Mary Eliza, a slave, and her owner, Michael Morris Healy, an Irish immigrant and landowner. Healy sent all of the children to the North, where they did not consider themselves as black. James, Patrick, and Alexander eventually completed seminary in Europe. In 1875, James became the first African American bishop, leading the Diocese of Portland, Maine. Patrick was never recognized as black. A Jesuit, Patrick was the first president of Georgetown University-ironically, an institution that did not accept black students until the time of the civil rights movement.

The first African American priest who was known and recognized as black was Augustus Tolton (1854-1897). Tolton was born on a Missouri plantation. Both of his parents devout Catholics and slaves. At the outbreak of the Civil War, his father fled to freedom in St. Louis, where the Union Army was stationed. Later, Tolton's mother fled to freedom in Quincy, Illinois, rowing across the Mississippi River with her three children. In Quincy, they lived in the midst of poverty and deep racism.

Educated in Catholic schools, Augustus Tolton felt called to the priesthood, but no seminary in the United States accepted blacks. Various priests in Illinois tutored him in foreign languages and history and encouraged his vocation. He gained admission to a seminary in Rome and at the age of 32 was ordained there, at the prestigious Basilica of St. John Lateran. Upon his return to the United States, overflow crowds in three states gathered for his first masses"...
This article provides information about the history of African American Catholics up and including the present.

From "The History of Why Black Folk ain't Catholic" posted by LT, Saturday, May 19, 2012
..."The antebellum South was predominately Protestant. Originally settled and controlled by Anglicans, the lower class mass of poor farmers, field hands and uneducated average joes found Baptists to be less ritualistic, more charismatic, and their services more participatory. Most slaves that adopted Christianity became Baptists, solely because Baptists allowed them to attend services or hold their own worship. Catholicism was existent in the South thanks to the settlement of the Spanish and French in Florida, Western Mississippi, and Louisiana. Maryland and Louisiana were two slave holding states with a large populace of Catholic residents yet blacks, whether slaves or freed, were less likely be a part of those numbers. Why?

Whereas Baptists, would accept blacks in services, they often found exclusion at Catholic parishes. [Links given to] papal letters prior to and after the Civil War regarding the Church's stance on abolishing slavery. Unfortunately, immigrant American Catholics (Irish, Italian, Eastern European) and their clergy often were not receptive to the idea of mixing with the black population even religiously. Pope Gregory XVI's letter was not well received by the American Catholic clergy, and was often interpreted as a condemnation of the horrific slave trade and not necessarily the institution of slavery itself. This discrimination led to Black Catholics living in a separate realm of faith; founding separate religious institutes for black nuns and priests since diocesan seminaries would not accept them. Many blacks simply felt more at home in Protestant churches where they could worship more emotionally and unstructured, develop (what they perceived) was a real personal relationship with the Lord and be surrounded by others in their community...

[Prior to and during the civil rights era in the 1960s] It also didn't help that quite like water fountains and bathrooms, Catholic confessionals and Mass services (including Baptism and Confirmation) were segregated; some priests and bishops would not even allow Blacks to enter the sanctuary or accept communion"...
Selected comments from that blog post's discussion thread:
Question from a reader:
Deltaflute, May 19, 2012 at 7:15 AM
"I have to point out that even though Catholic churches were separatists so were the Baptist ones. Even today Black Baptist Churches very rarely see white people and vice versa in the deep South. So is the reason more because there were no separate Black Congregations because the white slave owning Baptists wouldn't allow it or because the Church wouldn't? Not trying to sound snarky either. I'm asking a legit question."

Reply [from that blog's editor]
LT, May 19, 2012 at 7:57 AM
"Legit question. Of course Baptist churches segregated too. But the point is that in the past Catholics weren't as open to evangelizing teaching slaves or freed slaves about the Church. Protestants at least taught the Blacks about God, from there they could create their own worship services. It's hard to be a Catholic if you can't get into a Catholic church."

angelwill2015, May 12, 2014 at 3:04 PM
"In the days of slavery, and in some instances up to the beginning of the 20th century, as a "black" (allegedly meaning your your skin color) you were the religion of the colony that ruled the country. Black slaves in the New World were in a British Protestant colony. It is surprising Catholics in the New World who were persecuted as well, survived in Maryland and Louisiana - black or otherwise. In French Catholic colonies of Haiti, the Caribbean and Francafrique - you were Black Catholic. In the Spanish Catholic colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Portugal, etc.) - you were Black Catholic. This perspective needs to be more global. At one time Spanish and French Catholic colonization dominated the majority of the world.....the Black Catholics of the French and Spanish colonies far exceed the Black Catholics of the US....naturally Blaks in a Protestant colony are Protestant. The US was a Protestant colony until religious freedom was actually enacted into law, practiced, enforced, allowed and embraced."

cmskjbbnMay 22, 2012 at 5:14 PM

You hear so much about what Protestant leaders were rightly doing to fight slavery and it's hard to think that the Church was relatively silent. I appreciate the links to the papal documents so I can be better educated about what the Church was actually saying.

It is sad to think of Catholic parishes making blacks feel unwelcome and terrible knowing that blacks were not admitted to seminaries and religious orders.* So sad. Thank God for the growth of the Church in Africa, where a love of the faith, even in the face of terrible persecution, is an inspiration to those of us who might take our faith for granted.

*I heard on Catholic radio that the first president of Georgetown [University] was black, mixed race actually, but I can't find any confirmation of that on the Internet. Has anyone heard that before?"

Anonymous,May 23, 2012 at 11:47 AM
"Yes, cmskjbbn. He was Father James Augustine Healy, also the second bishop of Portland Maine. His mother had been a slave. His father was an Irish plantation owner who purchased his mother's freedom and married her. You can read the story here

"Catholic Mass done unlike any you've ever seen" By Joanne Kimberlin The Virginian-Pilot, August 4, 2014
"St. Mary’s should be felt both ways – empty and full.

With no one in the pews, it’s a monument of soaring arches, stained glass and carved marble, where your voice instinctively sinks to a whisper – so impressive it’s the only Catholic church in Virginia to earn “basilica” status, chosen by the pope as a special place of pilgrimage.

Packed with worshippers, it’s even more remarkable: the only African American basilica in the country, a place where an overwhelmingly black flock is led by a white priest with Irish roots and the formality of ancient rituals pulses with stand-up-and-shout soul.

...St. Mary’s, known as the “Mother Church of Catholicism” in Virginia, was built when steeples dominated skylines and churches were works of Gothic art. Its original 1842 structure, destroyed by fire in 1856, was replaced by the current one in 1858.
When you think about everything that’s gone on outside its doors – even the Civil War,” [Tom] Bomar said, “and the church is still here, doing what it’s always done.”

But there have been changes inside, too. Worshippers like Bomar once were restricted to seats in the balcony. Like many religious entities, the Roman Catholic Church has a spotty record of race relations. Blacks began attending the all-white St. Mary’s in 1886, but they were segregated in the choir loft.

Three years later, Catholic leaders decided to build blacks their own church in Norfolk, St. Joseph’s, near where Scope stands today. When it was razed in 1961, orders came to reunite the congregations, spurring white flight from St. Mary’s.

Across the country, black Catholics remain a minority. For all kinds of historical and cultural reasons, blacks have traditionally embraced other religions.

In the last census, of the 66 million Americans who said they were Protestant, 20 million were black. Of the 68 million who said they were Catholic, only 2 million were black.

More than 1,000 of them attend St. Mary’s. Many are like Bomar, a “converted Catholic” instead of a “cradle Catholic,” and they’ve brought their heritage with them – the fiery gospel ways of African American denominations.

That union meshes the pageantry, reverence and flickering candles of the Roman Catholic service with a worship style that’s full of movement, flavored by a full-throated choir, punctuated by “AMEN!”

But its essence is universal.

“Everyone is welcome here,” Bomar said. “Black church? White church? Those are just barriers people put up. You recognize a decent person by their character. Anything else is superficial.”

Race is no barrier between this flock and its shepherd. In Protestant churches, where congregations often pick their own pastors, skin color usually matches between pulpit and pew. But the hierarchy of the Catholic Church shuffles its priests around, and with few black ones to choose from, rotations tend to be color­blind.

“Our last priest was black,” Bomar said, “and he got sent to a white church in Petersburg. I like that. It reminds everyone that the pastor does not own the church. It gives a humble spirit.”...

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