November not only marks a time when we pray for all saints and souls in loving remembrance but honor black Catholics who have had a huge impact on the history and traditions of Christianity. This essay, written by a staff member of a school on the campus of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Md., speaks about the men and women who have pioneered the Catholic faith. The National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States designated November as Black Catholic History Month to celebrate the long history and proud heritage of black Catholics. Two commemorative dates celebrating prominent black Catholics fall within this month — the feast day of St. Martin de Porres on Nov. 3 and St. Augustine’s birthday on Nov. 13.
In a prophetic and meaningful manner, the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus boldly proclaimed and designated on July 24, 1990, that November is Black Catholic History Month.
This radical and daring designation was undergirded with a profoundly written book on “The History of Black Catholics in the United States,” by Rev. Cyprian Davis, OSB. The scholarship of Rev. Davis serves as the canon for anyone who wishes to engage in learning about the history, spirituality, contributions, and gifts of black Catholics.
The Black Catholic Clergy Caucus’ declaration of Black Catholic History Month proves to be the clarion call for the universal Catholic Church, which for many years did not recognize the history, spirituality, contributions, gifts, and the sacrifices of its most loyalist congregants. Black Catholics throughout the U.S. and abroad can proudly proclaim with an unyielding sense pride that they too “have the right to the tree of life” in the Catholic Church.
History of Black Catholics
The universal Catholic Church has long been the beneficiary of the countless contributions, actions and developments of black Catholic men and women who founded the first groups of religious women – such as Oblate Sisters of Providence, Sisters of the Holy Family and Franciscan Handmaids of Mary – the first group of religious men, the Josephites, who dedicate their entire mission and the service of black Catholics, the first group of laymen and women who founded the first lay congress – the Knights & Ladies of Peter Clavier – to name just a few.
Furthermore, five years prior to the designation of Black Catholic History Month, the Most Rev. John H. Ricard, SSJ, reestablished the National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC). The first Black Lay Congress was held in Washington, D.C., in January 1889.
During this first Black Congress, more than 200 delegates met with President Grover Cleveland. Since 1987, seven congresses have been held, the latest from July 6 to 9. Highlights of these congresses can be found on the NBCC website.
African American Perspective
Black men – living and deceased – of the Order of Friars Minor have, too, given their time, talents and treasure to the Black Catholic Church.
Did you know that the late Archbishop James Lyke, OFM, served as the second black archbishop of Atlanta before his untimely death and today, Ferdinand Cheri, OFM, serves as the auxiliary bishop of New Orleans?
Did you know that the OFMs had a renowned black psychologist named Fr. Charles Payne, OFM?
Did you know that Holy Name Province has a lay brother who is a permanent deacon, Henry Fulmer, OFM?
Did you know that the OFMs have a priest named Fr. Darren Combs, OFM, who is a well-known catechist?
There are other men serving in positions as parish priests and community program directors such as Benedict Taylor, OFM, and Paul Williams, OFM. The order also has a priest named Fr. James Goode, OFM, who is a sought after revivalist. Many of these black Franciscans have attended and served as educators in their respective areas at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at the Xavier University of New Orleans.
I have personally enjoyed and have been the beneficiary of the black OFMs scholarship and friendship. For instance, as a senior at St. Frances Academy High School in Baltimore, the first black Catholic school in the U.S., I was given the assignment to write about the Black Clergy Caucus that was founded in 1968.
I chose to write about Fr. Jim Goode, the late Fr. Eugene Marino, SSJ – who would go on to become the first black archbishop of Atlanta – and the late Fr. Jerome Moody, CSSR. In my research about these men, I discovered how these strong priests were able to deal with and overcome various forms of injustices and racism they faced in their formation and in their priesthood.
As a black Catholic layman, I have greatly benefited from their tenacity to face with courage, fortitude and hope the many struggles they and others encountered in their sojourn in the Catholic Church. Additionally, I enjoy a fraternal relationship with Fr. Goode. We are members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the first black fraternity organization in the U.S.
I have had the honor and pleasure of teaching with Fr. Derran Combs and the late Fr. Charles Payne, OFM, of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans. Fr. Combs’ expertise in Catechesis and Fr. Payne’s work as a psychologist has been and continues to be, an integral part of continuing education and master in pastoral theology courses at the IBCS.
Their scholarship and depth of knowledge are beacons of hope for those engaged in ministry in and for the black community. As we entered into our Father’s house to read, discover, and absorb that our Black Catholic Brothers and Sisters certainly have gifted the Catholic Church universal.
A Few Resources
The following is a list of resources and canons that I recommend adding to a reservoir of black Catholic history knowledge.
- The History of Black Catholics in the United States by Rev. Dr. Cyprian Davis, OSB
- “Stamped with the Image of God: African American as God’s Image in Black by Rev. Dr. Cyprian Davis, OSB, and Sr. Jamie Phelps
- The National Black Catholic Congress website provides a number of resources related to black Catholics
- Institute for Black Catholic Studies
- Franciscan Handmaids of Mary
- Oblate Sisters of Providence
- Sisters of the Holy Family
- The Josephites
The invitation to enter into Black Catholic History Month and into Our Father’s house is open to all.
In its 2012-13 manual, the “Keep on Teaching” ministry, a Catechetical booklet created and published by Black Catholic Catechists and the Office of Black Catholics in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, provided an additional cursory review of the history of Black Catholics in Maryland and beyond based on the writings of the late Agnes Kane Callum, a renown genealogist, the late Josephites archivist extraordinaire, Rev. Peter Hogan, SSJ, and Oblate Sister of Providence Sr. Reginald Gerdes, OSP.
A copy of this document can be obtained from the Office of Black Catholic Ministries of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Their contact information can be found here.
I am very proud of my black Catholic heritage and I am equally proud to share this portrait about Black Catholic History. I am encouraged that Holy Name Province has ministered to black Catholics for many years. I certainly encourage the province to continue to proclaim that Black Catholic History is Catholic history.
— Kirk Gaddy is a middle school team leader at St. Francis International School and a member of St. Camillus Parish, both in Silver Spring, Md. He has served as a member of the HNP African Ancestry Committee since 2013.
- “Black History Month Celebrations Around Province” – March 1, 2017, HNP Today
- “Holy Name College to Host Black Catholic Vocation Retreat” – Nov. 30, 2016, HNP Today
- “Pope Francis Names Rev. Fernand Cheri, OFM, as Auxiliary Bishop of New Orleans” – Jan. 12, 2015, English-speaking Conference website
- “Friars Honor African Ancestry Culture in the Church” – Jan. 22, 2014, HNP Today
- “African Ancestry Committee Recommends National Black Catholic Congress” – May 23, 2012, HNP Today