For many, November 1st marked the official beginning of the “holiday season”, for others they prepare for specific holidays like Thanksgiving, and for Catholics (and protestant denominations who follow feast day celebrations), it was the Feast of All Saints. All Saints Day, as it is commonly referred in the United States, is a Christian solemnity celebrated in honor of all the saints of the Church, whether they are known or unknown.
There are more than 10,000 saints recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, though the names and histories of some of these holy men and women have been lost to history. The saints of the church are a diverse group of people with varied and interesting stories. The month of November has been set aside to honor and remember those saints of African descent who have been canonized and those on the road to canonization. Of those that are saints, there are only 937 saints of African descent, and no Black Americans have been canonized to date. This month, we focus our attention on the “Holy Six” — the Black American Catholics who ministered in the United States and who are currently under formal consideration for canonization:
Venerable Mother Mary Lange, founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first order of African American nuns in the United States. Mother Lange was also the founder of St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, Maryland, which is the first and oldest continually operating Black Catholic School in the United States.
Venerable Henriette DeLille, who founded the Sisters of the Holy Family of New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1836 and served as their first Mother Superior. The sisters are the secondoldest surviving congregation of African-American religious. Mother DeLille also defied the laws of the time by teaching free Blacks and the children of the enslaved how to read by teaching them the catechism.
Servant of God Julia Greeley, OFS, was an African-American philanthropist and Catholic convert. An enslaved woman later freed by the US government, she is known as Denver’s “Angel of Charity” because of her aid to countless families in poverty.
Venerable Pierre Toussaint, was born enslaved in Haiti and died a freeman in New York City. He is credited by many with being the father of Catholic Charities in New York. Pierre was instrumental in raising funds for the first Catholic orphanage and began the city’s first school for Black children. During a Yellow Fever epidemic when many of the city’s political leaders fled the city in search of healthier rural climates, Pierre Toussaint cared for the sick and the dying. He was a successful entrepreneur, who did not hesitate to share the fruits of his labor with others.
Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, was the first Catholic priest in the United States publicly known to be Black. Tolton was ordained in Rome in 1886. Assigned to the Diocese of Alton (now the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois), Tolton first ministered at his home parish in Quincy, Illinois, before opposition from local white Catholics caused discord. Reassigned to Chicago, Tolton led the development and construction of St. Monica’s Catholic Church as a Black “national parish,” completed in 1893 at 36th and Dearborn Streets on Chicago’s South Side.
Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, was a Black Catholic religious sister, teacher, musician, liturgist and scholar who made major contributions to the ministry of the Catholic Church toward African Americans. She became an evangelist among her people, assisted in the production of an African-American Catholic hymnal, and was a popular speaker on faith and spirituality in her final years, in addition to recording music. She also helped found the National Black Sisters’ Conference to provide support for African-American women in Catholic religious life. She spent many years with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.
I encourage people of all faiths to learn more about the six Black Americans on the road to sainthood. I also encourage you to learn more about the Black people who have already been canonized as saints. For more information, please reach out to Fessahaye Mebrahtu of the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s Black Catholic Ministry Commission, at 414-769-3300.