SAINTHOOD INITIATIVE IN U.S. INCLUDES CARIBBEAN-BORN BLACK CATHOLICS

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A post by Peter Jordens.

A renewed, united effort to advance the sainthood causes of five black American Catholics includes two Caribbean-born candidates: Pierre Toussaint (Haiti 1766 – USA 1853) and Elizabeth Clarisse Lange a.k.a. Mother Mary Lange (Cuba 1784 – USA 1882).

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Wilborn P. Nobles III reports for the Times-Picayune that members of several Catholic groups are uniting their efforts as they push to strengthen the case for canonizing five African Americans. The new coalition recently held one of its first meetings [hosted by] Xavier University of Louisiana and its Institute for Black Catholic Studies. [Included were members of] the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, the National Black Sisters Conference, the National Black Catholic Seminarians Association, and the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons.

The group of sainthood candidates comprises:

The Venerable Pierre Toussaint

The Venerable Henriette Delille

Servant of God Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange O.S.P.

Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton

Servant of God Julia Greeley.

Perry West explains for the Catholic News Agency that the Venerable Pierre Toussaint was a slave in what is now Haiti before being brought to New York City and eventually gaining his freedom. He became a successful hairdresser and was known for offering financial aid to those in needs, as well as care for the sick and orphans. [Many scholars view Toussaint as the “father” of Catholic Charities, which is considered the largest social service provider nationwide after the federal government.]

Servant of God Mother Mary Lange was raised in a French-speaking community in Cuba, but moved to the United States in the early 1800s. Lange eventually moved to Baltimore, where she became the founder and first superior of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. The community provided African American women a path to religious life in the Church. The sisters taught and cared for African American children.

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As Carol Kuruvilla writes for the Huffington Post, Xavier University President Reynold Verret said he hopes [that] bringing these regional initiatives together under one roof at Xavier University will help the community focus its resources [… and] push forward a little faster. 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 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.

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 [while …] only 3 percent [of American Catholics] identify as black.  “For most of its history in the US, the institutional Catholic church has been European and white,” Cressler said. “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 US 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.” The joint canonization initiative can [therefore also] be seen as an effort by today’s black American Catholics to have their contributions to the US 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.

Verret said 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.

For more information about the Venerable Pierre Toussaint, visit https://obmny.org/venerable-pierre-toussaint. For more on Mother Mary (Elizabeth Clarisse) Lange, go to http://www.motherlange.org/biography.html.

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