By LaKeshia Myers
When I was a classroom teacher, I had the opportunity to teach a course called College Summit. College Summit was not only a course designed to walk students through the college admission and application process, it also helped students identify their strengths and begin to explore out which college majors may interest them. As part of the class, I sponsored a career day for all of my seniors; for this event, I invited two African American nuns who represented the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first order of African American religious women founded in the United States.
It was important to me to include non-traditional careers as part of my curriculum and religious vocations are often overlooked when students are considering possibilities. The Oblates are the embodiment of their religious vocation, and have held true to their mission since their founding by Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange in 1828. Mother Lange, an Afro-Cuban, emigrated to the United States in the early 1800s and opened a school to educate children of color in Baltimore, Maryland. With the aid of Father James Joubert, a Sulpician priest, Lange along with three other women of color took vows and became the first religious congregation of women of African descent in the United States. The Oblate Sisters of Providence were established with the primary purpose of the Catholic education of girls. This was a very important task in 1828, as there were no free public schools for black children in Baltimore until 1866.
Like Mother Lange and the Oblates, many people of African descent have dedicated their lives to the Catholic Church and have embodied the tenets of their faith. For many years, their contributions were overlooked (and arguably, undervalued); church history is a part of the African diaspora and our presence in the Catholic church spans the entirety of the religion’s inception. According to the National Black Catholic Clergy Conference, blacks have been involved with the Christian church since the days of the Old Testament; and black Catholic history can be traced to the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 8:26-40) with the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch by Philip the Deacon.
Since 1990, the National Black Catholic Clergy Conference has designated the month of November as Black Catholic History Month, to honor the contributions of the many men and women of African descent who were dedicated to the Catholic faith. The month is also used to remember the struggles of black Catholics who also faced discrimination within the church. It is seen as a time to remember the thirty-one African saints recognized by the church, which include Pope Victor I, St. Josephine Bakhita, St. Augustine, St. Benedict the Moor, and St. Martin de Porres, the latter of which have churches named after them in Milwaukee.
Currently, there are no African American saints. However, there are six individuals who have open petitions for sainthood. Mother Mary Lange, founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, Venerable Henriette Delille, founder of the Sister of the Holy Family (New Orleans, LA), Venerable Pierre Toussaint (New York, NY), Venerable Fr. Augustus Tolton (Boston, MA), Julia Greeley (Denver, CO), and Sr. Thea Bowman (Canton, MS). Bowman, was also a professor at Viterbo University in LaCrosse, WI, and a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.
It is my hope that all individuals take time during the month of November to learn more about these amazing individuals who have made an indelible mark on history. If you would like to learn more about National Black Catholic History Month or participate in celebratory activities, please contact the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Office of Black Catholic Ministries at (414) 769-3300.