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News & Features

Events explore black Catholic history
archived from: 2011-12-05
by: Phil Taylor

Bishops Zubik and Murry offer background on progress, setbacks

Two bishops recently offered lessons on the subject of black Catholic history in the diocese and United States.

The first was Bishop David Zubik, who made remarks during a special Mass Nov. 6 at Holy Rosary Church in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood. Seventeen priests and two permanent deacons shared the church altar with the bishop.

Using the title of a popular spiritual, “We’ve Come This Far by Faith,” as a theme for his remarks, the bishop recounted some of the earliest diocesan black Catholic history. He said the first attempt to establish a black Catholic faith community in the Diocese of Pittsburgh was the forming of the Chapel of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin for Negroes, located in the Downtown Pittsburgh area.

The pre-Civil War attempt, however, which took place in 1844, would last about a year. Several reasons were cited for the failure, including racism, clergy issues and even rumors its pastor planned to sell parishioners into slavery.

Saying “We’ve come this far by faith,” Bishop Zubik said yet another attempt would take place decades later in 1867. This time, St. Joseph Church — a mission of St. Brigid Parish — lasted nine years. The mission was located in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Unfortunately, the sheer poverty of its parishioners resulted in its demise.

Another attempt would take place in 1889 with the establishment of St. Benedict the Moor. The church was located on Heldman Street in the Hill District. Today, the church is at Centre and Crawford avenues overlooking the downtown area and serves a diverse community of parishioners, including recent immigrants and refugees from Africa and the Caribbean.

Bishop Zubik said that, in bringing the Good News to all, the parish can claim a saint that worked tirelessly with Sisters of Mercy ministering at the parish and school. He was referring to St. Katharine Drexel, born into a wealthy Philadelphia family who used her family banking fortune in helping Native Americans and African-Americans.

In addition to St. Katharine, he also mentioned St. Martin de Porres, the first African saint canonized by Pope Paul VI, and the first recognized African-American priest in the United States, Father Augustus Tolton.

He said even though America wasn’t ready for its first native black Catholic priest, “he stood tall and firm in his faith,” despite enduring hardship. Bishop Zubik pointed out that the church can benefit as all of the faithful come “to a deep appreciation of the diversity of the church.”

He said it is important “for every single one of us to let God’s grace in our lives.”

“Let’s give thanks to God ... that ‘we’ve come this far by faith,’” the bishop said.

The liturgy was one of three events in conjunction with November as Black Catholic History Month. On Nov. 5, Franciscan Father James Goode led a day of reflection titled “Spirituality of the Black Catholic Family: Grounded in the Eucharist.”

Father Jim is the pastoral director of Solid Ground Franciscan Ministry, based in New York City. One of its goals is evangelization among African-American families. The day of reflection was held at the Comfort Inn in Penn Hills. It was also the site of the final event commemorating the month, with Youngstown Bishop George Murry speaking on vocations Nov. 19.

Greta Stokes Tucker, director of the diocesan Office for Black Catholic Ministries, said both Bishop Zubik and Father Jim’s remarks noted that black Catholics have stayed steadfast in their faith despite discrimination.

“We’ve come this far by faith locally and nationally,” she said. “As Catholics of African descent, it is through our faithfulness that God will continue to sustain us. Our challenge is to grow in faith and confidence as passionate leaders in our parishes, communities and in the church.”

Bishop Murry is one of 16 African-American bishops in the U.S. In 1972, he entered the Society of Jesus, more commonly known as the Jesuits. He has headed the Diocese of Youngstown since 2007. He is a former Georgetown University professor and former bishop of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.

He was the keynote speaker at the Annual Vocations Dinner, sponsored by the Knights of Peter Claver Ladies Auxiliary, Augustus Tolton Court 277. The court is named in honor of Father Tolton (1854-1897). The dinner’s primary focus is vocations, particularly among men and women of color.

The bishop began with a history of the nation’s first African-American clergy, relating the story of the Healy brothers. They were born to Michael Morris Healy, an Irishman, and a light-skinned slave woman named Mary Eliza, his common-law wife.

Healy became a wealthy plantation owner in Georgia. By 1831, he owned 1,600 acres and 17 slaves. Mary Eliza and Healy had 10 children, all of whom were slaves. Three of Healy’s first four sons would become the nation’s first African-American Catholic priests: James Augustine Healy, born in 1830, Patrick Francis Healy, born in 1834, and Alexander Sherwood Healy, born in 1836.

Although of mixed ancestry, they were not recognized publicly as African-Americans. Records show they made no reference to their African ancestry. In 1875, James was named the second bishop of Portland, Maine, and the first black Catholic bishop in the nation. Patrick was a member of the Jesuit order. In 1873, he became vice rector of Georgetown College (now university), and in 1874 its president. Alexander also made significant contributions as a canon lawyer in the Boston area.

“By all accounts, James Healy and Alexander Sherwood possessed distinctive African features while Patrick Healy did not, and was in fact told by his Jesuit superiors not to reveal the fact that his mother was African-American and a descendant of slaves,” Bishop Murry said. He also said that evidence indicates the Healy brothers “did everything possible to conceal their origins.”

The bishop discussed the life of Father Tolton, who was described by historian Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis in his book “The History of Black Catholics in the United States,” as “the first black American priest whom all knew and recognized as black.”

Father Tolton was born into slavery, educated in Europe and ordained in 1886 in Rome.

Originally from Illinois, the plan was that Tolton would not study for the diocese from which he came but would be sent to Africa as a missionary.

But Bishop Murry said during that time the prefect for the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith saw things differently and decreed that Tolton should return to the United States even though the idea of native black clergy was strongly opposed.

In 1886, Father Tolton returned to the United States, and problems quickly surfaced. It was clear that neighboring pastors in Quincy, Ill., resented “the colored priest.”

After several requests to leave the diocese, the young priest was granted permission to begin ministry in Chicago. Due to his efforts in 1889, St. Monica Parish was dedicated and fortunately, the bishop said, “still stands to this day.”

Unfortunately, Father Tolton lived in fear for his physical safety and “had a deep sense of his own inadequacy.” In addition, his health was poor.

One day after walking from a train station in more than 100-degree heat, Father Tolton collapsed on the street. He died a short time later. He was 43. Bishop Murry noted that both the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Diocese of Springfield (which includes Quincy) are promoting the priest for canonization. Concluding his brief talk about the history of black clergy in the U.S., he said the next group of African-American priests was ordained primarily through the efforts of the Society of Divine Word.

The order opened a seminary in 1923 in Bay St. Louis, Miss. It was opened specifically to train black men for the priesthood. He said years later more priests were ordained and served primarily in the South. He said blacks continued to receive holy orders and most today were ordained in the 1960s and 1970s, noting that there are currently 270 African-American priests in the U.S.

Speaking of vocations, he said what motivated these men to a life of ministry was basically two factors: an undying love for Jesus Christ and a deep desire to contribute to the African-American community.

“Do these factors still exist today? I believe that they do, and that is why it is so important for us to work together to encourage, to call forth and to challenge religious vocations from African-American youth,” Bishop Murry said.

He emphasized that the work of vocations is the responsibility of all in the church.

“We have to raise to them (youth) the possibility of priesthood. Jesus left it in our hands. It means we have to assist Jesus in that call. We have to identify men and women and help them to hear God’s call.”

He also noted that those who follow Jesus should never be too concerned about their shortcomings. “All of us are sinners. All of us fail. Vocations is not about you and me. It is about God.”

The dinner was also attended by several religious, including representatives from the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and the Sisters of St. Joseph.

Representing the diocesan Vocations Office was Father Benedetto “Ben” Vaghetto, spiritual director, St. Paul Seminary in Crafton. He was accompanied by seminarian Alexander Schrenk, a first-year pre-theology student.

The Knights of Peter Claver Ladies Auxiliary has been working in conjunction with the diocesan Vocations Office and Communications Office in an effort to foster vocations among the local African-American community.




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