November’s designation as Black Catholic History Month provides the opportunity to focus on the numerous of contributions Black Catholics have made to the Church in America. Many Black Catholic figures who have left an indelible mark, particularly the four figures who are of African-American descent on the path to canonization. With ties to Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans and New York, the heroic lives of virtue and ministry of Servants of God Augustus Tolton, Mary Lange and Venerables Henriette Delille and Pierre Toussaint illustrate the holiness of the Black Catholic community in America.
The daughter of a Frenchman and a free woman of color, Henriette Delille lived out her days in New Orleans’ French Quarter. As a young woman, she advanced in the ways of high society — schooled in French literature and instilled with a penchant for music and dancing. Her mother’s aim had been to groom her as a suitable candidate to enter into a common-law marriage situation where mixed race women weren’t considered fully spouses to their European husbands — the colonial system called plaçage. It seems as though she rejected the idea, since no record exists. However, some parish records indicate that she may have had two sons who died in infancy, although it is uncertain. What’s clear, though, is that, after her confirmation, Henriette was changed. She desired religious life, but was denied by two communities because of her skin color. In her teenage years she became influenced by the religious sisters with whom she began teaching alongside of when she was 14. Henriette began her own religious congregation in 1836 — eventually known as the Sisters of the Holy Family — by utilizing the inheritance received following her mother’s death. The order’s founding mission was to serve the poor and sick and provide religious education to free and enslaved alike. Henriette also was known to be the godmother marriage witness of many, including both slaves and free. After spending herself in love and service of others, she died at the age of 49 on Nov. 16, 1862.
Little is known about the early life of Mother Mary Lange. Likely of what’s today Haitian ethnicity, Lange emigrated from Cuba shortly after the War of 1812 and made her way to Baltimore where she ran a school for African-American children in her home. Sulpician Father James Joubert had been instructing Sunday school for Black Catholic children and recognized that many of them, particularly girls, were unable to read or write. Because of this, he sought to open a school for girls and asked Lange and another woman to not only operate the school but also to start a religious order to staff the school. With that, the Oblate Sisters of Providence were born. Under the leadership of Mother Lange, their mission grew from simply running schools to offering career development classes for women and to operating homes for widows and orphans. She died in Baltimore on Feb. 3, 1882.
Pierre Toussaint is remembered for a life of selflessness and charity. He was born into slavery in modern-day Haiti and received his freedom in 1807. After emmigrating to New York City, he became successful as a hairdresser — earning a sizable salary, he saved his income to purchase his sister’s freedom as well as that of his future wife, Juliette. The couple offered their lives to God in care of the poor and needy. Together they adopted Pierre’s niece and provided for her education. They fostered and housed several orphans in their home over the years, and they were dedicated to doing works of charity throughout the city. The Toussaints also offered much assistance to help their wards learn trades, in addition to operating a credit bureau and providing a shelter for immigrant priests. Pierre boldly crossed barricades to nurse the sick and destitute during a cholera outbreak. He attended daily Mass for more than 60 years until he died, two years after his wife, on June 30, 1853.
The son of slaves, Father Augustus Tolton went on to be ordained the first priest from the United States to be recognized as African-American. His family made a harrowing escape into Northern territory, settling at Quincy, Illinois. The pastor of St. Peter’s Church in that city — Father Peter McGirr — took the young Augustus under his wing and allowed him to enter the parish school against the wishes of many in the parish. Regrettably, no American seminary would accept Tolton, and he would go on to be ordained in 1886, after attending the Pontifical Urban College in Rome. His expectation was to serve as a missionary to the African continent, however he was assigned back to the United States. Father Tolton’s arrival in his hometown was met with racial prejudice by laity and clergy alike — with the bishop’s delegate telling him he was not to allow white people to attend his parish. Father Tolton persevered in humility and obedience, with greatest of virtue, but was eventually granted the opportunity to minister in Chicago by Archbishop Patrick Feehan inn 1889. In the Windy City, Father Tolton provided priestly care to a growing Black Catholic community, which formed into St. Monica Church. He poured out his life in service to his people — in care for the poor and in a church building project, among other things. This strenuous work undoubtedly was a contributing factor to his untimely death at the age of 43. After returning to Chicago by train from a retreat, Father Tolton collapsed in the street on a hot summer day and died on July 9, 1897.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.