Celebrate Black Catholic History Month ‘for the greater glory of God’

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By Kateri Joda Williams

“For the greater glory of God.” That is the reason all Catholics celebrate the heritage and contributions of Blacks in Catholic Christianity during the month of November. In an address to African Bishops, Pope Paul VI declared that “you must now give the gifts of your blackness to the whole church.” Established in 1990 by the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States, Black Catholic History Month honors the richness of the universality of the Church.

It is fitting that Black Catholic History Month is celebrated during the month we commemorate the saints. Many Catholics know of St. Martin de Porres, the only saint of African descent from this hemisphere. His feast day is celebrated on Nov. 3. We also celebrate the birth of St. Augustine, the first Doctor of the Church, born in North Africa on Nov. 13.

However, many Catholics are unaware of the current six African Americans proposed for sainthood. Those of us fortunate to live in Colorado should be familiar with Servant of God Julia Greeley, known as Denver’s Angel of Charity. Venerable Pierre Toussaint was born a slave, yet once freed, he became a businessman in New York City. Using his wealth, he supported charitable causes which included work against religious and racial prejudice.

In 1829, Servant of God Mother Mary Lange co-founded of the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, the oldest religious congregation for women of color in the United States. Venerable Mother Henriette Delille, born in New Orleans, founded the second religious order for women of color, the Sisters of the Holy Family. As the education of slaves was illegal, the ministry of both these women was done under great risk.

Venerable Father Augustus Tolton was born into slavery in 1854 in the state of Missouri. Ordained in Rome in 1886, he was the first publicly recognized black priest in the United States.

Becoming Catholic at the age of nine, Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman was born in Mississippi in 1937. She was the first African American to join the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Wisconsin. After a teaching career, Sister Thea served as a special consultant for the Catholic Church, giving presentations aimed at bridging cultural divisions. I was blessed with the opportunity to meet Sister Thea after a presentation at Queen of Peace Parish, where she combined her gifts of spreading the gospel with singing, prayers and storytelling. Diagnosed with bone cancer in 1984, Sister Thea worked from her wheelchair until her death in 1990. She prayed “to live until I die — to live fully.”

It is imperative that we understand our past to live fully in the present with faith in the future. Therefore, the influence of blacks in Catholic history cannot be limited to the month of November. Father Cyprian Davis, a Benedictine priest and professor wrote the definitive account of Black Catholics in his publication, The History of Black Catholics in the United States. The Josephite Pastoral Center and the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., are also great resources from which the information for this article was obtained.

There is an opportunity for deeper reflection regarding the lives of the six Black Catholic candidates for sainthood during the Annual Black Catholic Retreat in April 2020 at the Sacred Heart Jesuit Retreat House. Come find yourself in the pages of scripture as we study “The Saints Among Us,” all for the greater glory of God.

COMING UP: Thomas Fitzsimons: The unsung Catholic Founding Father 

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As our nation celebrates the day of its independence and subsequent founding as a country on July 4, a look back some lesser-knowCatholic history of this historic event seems warranted.  

George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin: these are names every American knows. Pull out your wallet and you’ll likely see at least one of their faces on the money you carry aroundAnd while this nation was founded on principles rooted in Christianity, none of these men were Catholic. In fact, of the men history calls the Founding Fathers of America, only two were. 

Many may already be familiar with Founding Father Charles Carroll, a Catholic and signer of the Declaration of Independence, and whose brother John was the first Catholic bishop assigned to what would become the United States. However, Carroll was not the only Catholic who played a role in the founding of our country. The other was Thomas Fitzsimons, a name that is not mentioned much (if at all) in U.S. history classes but deserves to be recognized nonetheless.  

The unwieldy named Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, published in 1887, paints a vivid picture of Fitzsimons and the way his faith informed his character. While the other Founding Fathers were meeting and deliberating about the Declaration of Independence, Fitzsimons joined the Continental Army anfought on the frontlines against the British army. 

Captain Fitzsimons commanded his company of militia until 1778, when France entered the war. British troops withdrew from Pennsylvania and began to focus on the southern states. It was at this time that Fitzsimons became more involved in politics at the state level. In 1782, he became a delegate at the Continental Congress. In 1786, he was elected as a Pennsylvania state legislator and served for three terms until 1789. In 1787, he was selected to represent Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Congress, where the United States Constitution was written and ratified. He, along with Daniel Carroll, were the only two Catholics to sign to Constitution. 

Born in Belfast, Ireland in 1741, not much else is known about Fitzsimons’ family. He had three brothers – Nicholas, Andrew and John – and one sister, Ann. He and his family immigrated to America as early as 1760, where they became residents of Philadelphia. It was here that Fitzsimons would stake his claim as a businessman and politician. 

In 1763, Fitzsimons married Catharine Meade, whose brother, George Meade, would later go into business with Fitzsimons and build one of the most successful commercial trade houses in Philadelphia. Throughout his life, Fitzsimons was in close correspondence with Bishop John Carrollthese letters revealed insights into the Catholic Founding Father’s personal life. In a letter to Bishop Carroll in 1808, Fitzsimons wrote of being married to Catharine for 45 years. Additionally, local baptismal records show that he and Catharine stood as sponsors at the baptisms of three of Meade’s children. 

In 1774, Fitzsimons began his first foray into politics when he was elected as one of 13 Provincial Deputies who were given authority to call a general meeting of the citizens. It is believed he was the first Catholic to have ever held public office in the budding United States. Even so, anti-Catholic bigotry was common at the time and did exist within some of his fellow statesmen, such as John Adams, who once said in an address to the people of Great Britain that the Catholic faith was “a religion that has deluged your island in blood and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world.” 

Fitzsimons’ first stint in public office was brief, only lasting from May to July, but it was a foreshadowing his future involvement in state affairs. As the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Fitzsimons formed a company of soldiers to fight against the British army. He was assigned to the Third Battalion under Col. Cadwalader and Lieut. Col. John Nixon, who was the grandson of a Catholic. Behind the scenes, as George Washington and the like organized committees and framed what would become the Declaration of Independence, Fitzsimons ascended to the rank of Captain and continued to serve his country as a soldier and patriot.

In addition to his tenure as a commanding officer and politician, Fitzsimons also found success in other ventures. In 1781, he helped found the Bank of North America, the United States’ first de facto central bank, and served as its director until 1803. The latter years of his life were spent primarily in private business, but he maintained a consistent interest in public affairs; even Fitzsimons wasn’t exempt from the old adage, “once a politician, always a politician.” 

Through all of these endeavors, and even after befalling troubled financial times in the early 1800s, Fitzsimons remained a diligent philanthropist. He gave immense support to St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia and was invested in the improvement of public education in the commonwealth. As one of his contemporaries wrote after his death in 1811, “he died in the esteem, affection and gratitude of all classes of his fellow citizens.” 

Fitzsimons was buried in the graveyard of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia, which is now part of Independence National Historical Park. His name may not be a household one like Washington or Jefferson, but Fitzsimons can be remembered as something of an unsung Founding Father of the United Statesa man whose life of quiet faith, humble service and admirable patriotism exemplifies the values that this country was founded upon in a simple yet profound way.