June 19, 2020


Our history of racism

We hope that the peaceful demonstrations against racism, which have extended throughout the world, will have some lasting effects. Somehow we must learn that all humans are made in the image and likeness of God, and end discrimination.

After the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Catholic leaders from Pope Francis to the American bishops have issued statements re-emphasizing that racism is a life issue that must be condemned. “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life,” the pope said.

In all honesty, though, we must admit that American Catholics haven’t always rejected racism. And that could play a role in why only about 3 percent of Catholics are African-Americans.

We have to acknowledge that there was a time when many parishes would not admit black Americans, or, if they did, they would have to remain in the back of the church and receive Communion last. And yes, American religious orders owned black slaves.

Thankfully, all that has changed, or is changing. We have seen the Jesuits apologize for their sins of the past. Georgetown University, for example, apologized to the descendants of 272 enslaved people owned by the Jesuits and sold in 1838 to help finance the first Catholic college in the U.S.

It’s difficult to admit, but many Catholics tended to be racists well into the 20th century. When New Orleans Archbishop Francis J. Rummel demanded the desegregation of churches and schools in his archdiocese in 1953, he met so much opposition that, in 1962, he excommunicated three men, including Judge Leander Perez, who called on Catholics to withhold contributions to their parishes.

Black Catholics have experienced racism in and beyond the Church in central and southern Indiana. But they found an advocate in New Albany native Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter. He ordered the desegregation of schools in the archdiocese in 1938—16 years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling that made it the law of the land. One of Archbishop Ritter’s first acts upon being named to lead the St. Louis Archdiocese in 1946 was to desegregate schools there.

Despite the challenges they have often faced, the black Catholic community has given us some great examples of holiness, including some who are on the road to sainthood. It’s unfortunate, though, that none of them has yet to be beatified.

Venerable Pierre Toussaint was a former slave in Haiti who became a hairdresser for the wealthiest women in New York. Although he helped raise funds for the building of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he was once refused admittance there because of the color of his skin. Today he is the only lay person to be buried among cardinals and archbishops there.

Venerable Henriette Delille, born in New Orleans in 1812, was known as “a free woman of color.” She founded the Congregation of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to catechize African-Americans, and members of the congregation lived in great poverty.

Venerable Augustus Tolton (baptized Augustine) was a former slave who became the first African-American to be ordained a priest. That happened in Rome in 1886 because he couldn’t find a seminary in the United States that would accept a black man. He served as a pastor in Quincy, Ill., and then in Chicago.

Servant of God Mary Lange founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore to educate black children, which was illegal in the early 19th century. She and her sisters had to endure verbal insults and threats of physical abuse from white Catholics who objected to “colored” women wearing the habit of a nun.

Servant of God Julia Greeley, born a slave in Hannibal, Mo., was freed under the Emancipation Proclamation. She eventually moved to Denver where she became known as “Denver’s Angel of Charity” because of her dedication to the poor. She would pull a red wagon through the streets to bring food, coal, clothing and groceries to the needy.

Servant of God Thea Bowman was a remarkable woman who died of cancer in 1990 at age 52. Immediately before her death, sitting in her wheelchair, she gave a powerful speech to the U.S. bishops on what she said was her favorite topic: evangelization among the black population. She finished her talk by singing a song from her African-American hymnal. The bishops gave her a sustained standing ovation when she finished.

Perhaps one of the best things American Catholics could do as we strive to help end racism would be to advocate for the early beatification of these six people. May our hearts be moved to such action.

—John F. Fink

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