Black Catholic history is for everyone, Catholic educator says

Fr Tolton Public Domain Wikipedia CNA Father Augustus Tolton. | Credit: Public Domain/Wikipedia

A Catholic educator from Texas says teaching students about Black Catholic saints and other holy men and women of color “gives not only representation, but new role models for all of our students.”

“Being Catholic is an overarching, cross-racial identity. There is no outgroup in the Catholic Church,” said Kaye Crawford, who founded the site in 2013. 

February is Black History Month, and the Church also celebrates Black Catholic History month every November. 

Crawford, who has a master’s degree in theology from the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in Louisiana, hosted a webinar for fellow Catholic educators Feb. 1 titled “What Our Students Don’t Know About Black Catholic History.” She told CNA that in her remarks she emphasized the importance of presenting to students a diverse range of Catholic role models, such as the African Pope Victor I, who is believed to have been the first pope to celebrate the liturgy and write Church documents in Latin rather than Greek.

“The history and the wisdom of Black Catholic theologians is too beautiful to miss,” Crawford said, adding that the faithful examples of Black Catholics can draw people into the Catholic faith, including those of other faiths. 

She pointed to the example of Sister Thea Bowman, who was raised Protestant and later converted, leading her parents to embrace the Catholic faith also. Crawford encouraged parents and educators to seek out resources about Black Catholics, suggesting as a resource Father Cyprian Davis’ historical tome “Black Catholics in America.”

“If the lessons in the classroom are overwhelmingly Eurocentric, what does that say to the child of color? And then what does that say to the Anglo child about what Catholic identity looks like?” she asked, adding that Catholics can also assess the sacred art in their homes to consider whether some additional representation would be appropriate.  

“It is important for every single student, regardless of complexion or ethnicity, to know this fuller history of our Church … Black Catholics know this history, [but] if their children go to Catholic school and it doesn’t get taught, it’s sort of like my ‘side’ of this universal family isn’t going to get spoken about,” she said.

About 6% of the Black population in the U.S. — approximately 3 million total people — is Catholic, compared with some 66% who are Protestant. Black Catholic communities in the U.S. include not only African-Americans but also African and Caribbean immigrants. They make up about 4% of all Catholic adults. African-American Catholic populations can be found in cities including Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Philadelphia; Chicago; and numerous cities throughout the South.

While there are already numerous Black canonized saints in the Catholic Church — such as St. Martin de Porres, St. Josephine Bakhita, and St. Augustine — none have yet been African-American, despite communities of Black Catholics existing in the U.S. for centuries. 

There are currently a half-dozen African-American candidates for sainthood, however, with perhaps the best-known being Father Augustus Tolton, who was born a slave in Missouri and was the first African-American priest. Others include Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Servant of God Mary Lange, Venerable Henriette DeLille, and Servant of God Julia Greeley. 

Another notable Black Catholic who gained worldwide attention recently is Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, the foundress of a Missouri-based religious congregation who died in 2019 and was allegedly found to be incorrupt after being exhumed last summer, though her congregation has said it has no current plans to open her cause for sainthood. 

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