There Are No Black American Saints. These Catholics Are Working To Change That.

Xavier University of Louisiana announced a plan to help advance the sainthood causes of five black American Catholics.
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Born in slavery in Santo Domingo, Haiti, Pierre Toussaint was brought to New York about 1797 by Jean Berard, a French landowner. When Berard returned to Haiti and died, leaving his young widow in New York without means, Toussaint took care of her until her death, supporting her and his own family as one of the most successful hairdressers in New York City. He used his wealth to begin a school, an orphanage and a religious community of black nuns.
The New York Historical Society via Getty Images

Black Catholics are a minority within the broader American Catholic Church, which has had to work hard to overcome decades of institutional racism. At the same time, they’re also a minority within black American Christianity, which is overwhelmingly Protestant. 

It’s not a surprise then, that although at least 11 U.S. Catholics have been recognized as saints, none is black. 

Now black Catholics across the country are joining forces to change that. 

Xavier University of Louisiana, the United States’ only historically black and Catholic college, announced Tuesday that it is teaming up with several national organizations to advance the sainthood causes of five black Catholic Americans.

The candidates are people like Pierre Toussaint, a former slave who started a school for black children in New York City and helped serve the city’s sick and poor. There’s Julia Greeley, another former slave, who was beloved in Denver for distributing charity to the needy. Henriette Delille in New Orleans and Mary Elizabeth Lange in Baltimore both founded religious orders. Augustus Tolton, believed to be the first black Catholic priest in the U.S., was forced to travel to Rome for seminary because no American school would accept him.

These black men and women of faith are already well known in the local Catholic communities that are championing their sainthood causes. In fact, Lange, Tolton and Greeley have been declared “Servants of God” by local bishops ― the first official step in the four-part canonization process. Delille and Toussaint have been declared “Venerable” by the Vatican, which means they’re at the second stage.

Xavier President Reynold Verret told HuffPost he hopes bringing these regional initiatives together under one roof at Xavier University will help the community focus its resources.

“It takes quite some time to be able to gather the work that needs to be done,” Verret told HuffPost. “We think we’ll be able to accelerate the work and move forward in a better way, with resources and time and effort. These things are precious, and we need more of them to move these cases forward.”

“Together we could push forward a little faster.”  

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The joint initiative was announced at Xavier University of Louisiana.
Xavier University of Louisiana

Verret credits two black Catholic leaders, Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago and  Rev. Canon A. Gerard Jordan, a Louisiana native, with starting the conversation about pooling resources for these sainthood causes. The initiative also has the support of several prominent national groups for black priests, seminarians, deacons and religious sisters. 

One of the biggest challenges Verret foresees is fundraising to help with research and staffing. The plan is to create a resource center at Xavier’s Institute for Black Catholic Studies that will serve as a gathering point for scholarly work focusing on the lives of the five candidates. 

The modern-day canonization process can take decades or centuries. After being declared Venerable, candidates have to be associated with two miracles before they can be recognized as saints. These miracles need to be meticulously investigated and documented, then presented to the Vatican and affirmed by the pope. 

As a relatively young country, the United States has only produced around 11 saints. While there are numerous Catholic saints of African descent ― St. Augustine, St. Benedict the Moor, St. Martin de Porres, among others ― there are no black saints from the United States.

There are a number of reasons for this lack of representation, according to Matthew Cressler, a religion scholar at the College of Charleston who studies black Catholic history.

For starters, the black Catholic community is relatively small. Most black American Christians belong to historically black Protestant denominations, such as the National Baptist Convention. Only 5 percent of African Americans are Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center. 

On the other hand, while close to 60 percent of American Catholics identify as white, only 3 percent identify as black. 

“For most of its history in the U.S., the institutional Catholic church has been European and white,” Cressler told HuffPost. “That doesn’t mean American Catholics have all been European and white. But the people who have been running Catholic institutions and governing church culture [have been].” 

Over the years, black Catholics have accused the U.S. church of perpetuating racism and being complicit in white supremacy.

“The same racism that applied to American churches throughout the country applied to Catholic churches, especially in the South,” Verret said. 

As a result, he said, there’s a good chance that “large white churches would not have known about the lives of these individuals.” 

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Supporters of the new initiative gathered at Xavier University on Tuesday.
Xavier University of Louisiana

In addition, the process of canonization is one that takes significant financial, political and cultural capital. This has presented a significant challenge for black Catholics in the U.S.

Set against that backdrop, the joint canonization initiative can be seen as an effort by today’s black American Catholics to have their contributions to the U.S. church recognized on an institutional level. 

“Causes for sainthood always say at least as much about the communities championing the cause as they do about the potential saints themselves,” Cressler said.

The canonization of a black saint is a way for black American Catholics to have their contributions and history recognized by the church at large. 

Verret told HuffPost he believes all Catholics ― regardless of race ― can look to these five black Catholic individuals for examples of how to live a life of service and charity. 

He added that there’s a certain “charism” ― a unique, divine gift meant to help Catholics be of service to others ― that comes from the community of Catholics descended from slaves. 

“For black Catholics, this reminds us of our long stewardship within the church. That we’ve been here and that we have much more to do.” 

Before You Go

13 Women Mystics Who Helped Shape Christianity
St. Catherine of Siena(01 of13)
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The second-youngest of 25 children, Catherine of Siena is one of only two patron saints of Italy. Catherine believed herself to be spiritually wed to Jesus and committed herself to a monastic life as a teenager. She was a peacemaker during the 1368 revolution in Siena and convinced Pope Gregory XI to return the papacy to Rome during a tumultuous time for the Catholic Church. One story from her life tells of Jesus appearing to her with a heart in his hands and saying, “Dearest daughter, as I took your heart away from you the other day, now, you see, I am giving you mine, so that you can go on living with it for ever.” She was canonized in 1461. (credit:Heritage Images via Getty Images)
Joan of Arc(02 of13)
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Joan of Arc grew up a peasant in medieval France and reportedly started hearing the voices of saints from a young age. At the age of 18, Joan believed that God had chosen her to lead France to victory in its ongoing war with England. The precocious Joan convinced crowned prince Charles of Valois to allow her to lead a the country’s army to Orléans, where it defeated the English and their French allies, the Burgundians. She was subsequently captured by Anglo-Burgundian forces, tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1431. She was just 19 years old when she died. The Catholic Church canonized her in 1920. (credit:WiktorD via Getty Images)
Hildegard von Bingen(03 of13)
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Hildegard von Bingen was a Benedictine abbess who lived between 1098 and 1179. Hildegard became a nun as a teenager, though she had received divine visions since early childhood. It wasn’t until her 40s that Hildegard began writing a record of these visions, which came to be known as Scivias (Know the Ways). She went on to write other texts documenting her philosophy and also composed short works on medicine, natural history, music and more. Bishops, popes, and kings consulted her at a time when few women engaged in the political domain. She was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. (credit:Hulton Archive via Getty Images)
St. Teresa of Avila(04 of13)
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Teresa of Avila was born in Spain during the 16th century to a well-to-do family. Teresa was fascinated by stories of the Christian saints and martyrs from a young age and explored these interests through mystical games she played with her brother, Roderigo. Her early efforts to join a convent were interrupted by the disapproval of her father, as well as several bouts of malaria. She turned instead to quiet prayer and contemplation and attained what she described in her autobiography as the "prayer of union," in which she felt her soul absorbed into God’s power. She went on to join a convent and was said to have at one point restored her young nephew to health after he was crushed by a fallen wall. The episode was presented at the process for Teresa's canonization, which took place in 1662. (credit:MatteoCozzi via Getty Images)
St. Catherine of Genoa(05 of13)
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Born in 1447, Catherine of Genoa is perhaps best known for her visions of and treatise on purgatory. She conceptualized purgatory as an interior, rather than exterior, fire which individuals experience within themselves. “The soul presents itself to God still bound to the desires and suffering that derive from sin and this makes it impossible for it to enjoy the beatific vision of God,” Catherine wrote in her book of revelations. She developed a deep relationship with God which Pope Benedict XVI described as a “unitive life.” Catherine also dedicated her life to caring for the sick, which she did at the Pammatone Hospital until her death in 1510. She was canonized in 1737. (credit:Davide Papalini/Wikipedia)
St. Clare of Assisi(06 of13)
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Clare of Assisi shunned a life of luxury in her wealthy Italian family to devote herself to the burgeoning order of Francis of Assisi. When her parents promised her hand in marriage to a wealthy man in 1211, Clare fled for the Porziuncola Chapel and was taken in by Francis. She took vows dedicating her life to God, and Francis placed Clare provisionally with the Benedictine nuns of San Paolo. Her family, furious at Clare’s secret flight, went there to try to drag her home by force, but Clare was resolute. Clare’s piety was so profound that her sister, mother and several other female relatives eventually came to live with her and be her disciples in her convent outside Assisi. The group came to be known as the “Poor Clares” and walked barefoot, slept on the ground, abstained from meat, and spoke only when necessary. Clare died in 1253 and was canonized two years later by Pope Alexander IV. (credit:DEA / G. ROLI via Getty Images)
Thérèse of Lisieux(07 of13)
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Born in France in 1873, Thérèse of Lisieux experienced a mystical union with Christ while undergoing study for her First Communion in 1884. She entered the Carmel of Lisieux, a Carmelite hermitage, in 1888 and made a profession of religious devotion in 1890. She became ill and died at the young age of 24, but her writings and revelations formed the basis for widespread veneration after her death. Affectionately called The Little Flower, Thérèse believed that children have an aptitude for spiritual experience, which adults should model. "What matters in life," she wrote, "is not great deeds, but great love." She was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1925. (credit:Thérèse de Lisieux (away for a a while)/Flickr)
Julian of Norwich(08 of13)
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Little is known about Julian of Norwich, an English mystic who lived from 1342 until roughly 1430. Information about her comes primarily from her Revelations of Divine Love in Sixteen Showings, the book in which Julian recorded her divine visions. In 1373, she became ill and nearly died within a matter of days. A priest came to her bedside and show her an image of Christ, after which Julian recovered and received the 16 revelations that she recorded in her book. God later revealed to her the meaning of these visions, which she recorded as: “‘Would you learn to see clearly your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Learn it well: Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love.... Why did he show it to you? For Love’.... Thus I was taught that Love was our Lord’s meaning.” She chose to live a contemplative and reclusive life until her death. (credit:Leo Reynolds/Flickr)
St. Bridget of Sweden(09 of13)
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Unlike many of her counterparts, Bridget of Sweden did not devote herself fully to a religious life until her 40s when her husband died in 1344. Reportedly distraught after his death, Bridget spent long hours in prayer beside her husband’s grave at the abbey of Alvastra. There she believed God spoke to her, telling her to “be my bride and my canal.” He gave her the task of founding new religious order, and she went on to start the Brigittines, or the Order of St. Saviour. Both men and women joined the community, with separate cloisters. They lived in poor convents and were instructed to give all surplus income to the poor. In 1350, Bridget braved the plague, which was ravaging Europe, to pilgrimage to Rome in order to obtain authorization for her new order from the pope. It would be 20 years before she received this authorization, but Bridget quickly became known throughout Europe for her piety. She was canonized in 1391, less than 20 years after her death. (credit:Beao/Wikipedia)
St. Beatrice of Silva(10 of13)
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Born in 1424, Beatrice of Silva abandoned a court life with Princess Isabel of Portugal to enter a Cistercian convent in Toledo. She lived at the convent until 1484, when she believed God summoned her to found a religious order. She started the Congregation of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where she lived and served as superior until her death circa 1492. Shortly before Beatrice’s death, Pope Innocent VIII approved a the convent’s adoption of the Cistercian rule, which consisted of three guidelines: be silent and submissive to God’s direction; strive for a life of obscurity and piety; and love everyone with a holy love. Beatrice reportedly received a vision of the Virgin Mary dressed in a white habit with a white scapular and blue mantle, which formed the basis of the dress for her order. Pope Paul VI canonized St. Beatrice in 1976. (credit:Bocachete/Wikipedia)
St. Angela of Foligno(11 of13)
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Angela of Foligno was a Franciscan mystic who was born into a prestigious family and married at the age of 20. A series of events, which included a violent earthquake in 1279 and an ongoing war against Perugia lead her to call upon St Francis, who appeared to her in a vision and instructed her to go to confession. Three years later, her mother, husband and all of her children died in the span of a few months. Angela then sold her possessions and in 1291 enrolled in the Third Order of St Francis. At 43, Angela had a vision of God’s love while she was making a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Francis of Assisi. She dictated her experiences in The Book of the Experience of the Truly Faithful. Pope Francis canonized Angela of Foligno in 2013. (credit:Wikipedia)
Mechthild of Magdeburg(12 of13)
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Like Hadewijch, Mechthild of Magdeburg was part of the Beguine community. The German mystic decided at age 22 to devote her life to God and authored a text entitled The Flowing Light of the Godhead. She entered the convent of Helfta in 1270 and used poetry to express her divine revelations. On the first page of The Flowing Light, Mechthild wrote: “I have been put on my guard about this book, and certain people have warned me that, unless I have it buried, it will be burnt. Yet, I in my weakness have written it, because I dared not hide the gift that is in it.” (credit:Wikipedia)
Hadewijch(13 of13)
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Hadewijch was a Flemish mystic who was part of the Beguine movement, a network of ascetic and philanthropic communities of women that arose primarily in the Netherlands in the 13th century. Little is known about her life outside of her writings, which include a collection of letters on the spiritual life of the Beguines, as well as a book of visions. According to Dr. Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, a comparative literature professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Hadewijch “believed that the soul, created by God in his own image, longs to be one with divine love again, ‘to become God with God.’” (credit:Wikipedia)