The Catholic Commentator 

Many attending Mass at a predominately African-American church in the Diocese of Baton Rouge say it is a worship experience that is alive and vibrant. They receive a warm welcome, hear jubilant voices of a Gospel choir and “Amens” ringing out from the congregation as a priest or deacon delivers a passionate message, watch the rhythmic, graceful performances of liturgical dancers and pick up on a sense of community. 

During Black Catholic History Month in November, people of all races have had opportunities to look at the contributions of Black Catholics to the church. 

On July 24, 1990, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States designated November as Black Catholic History Month to celebrate the long and proud history of Black Catholics, according to NBCCC. Black history month is not only a time to pray to all saints and for souls, but also a time to recall the saints and souls of Africa and the African Diaspora. 

According to Deacon Alfred Adams, director of the Office of Black Catholics of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, there are many saints of predominately African heritage to celebrate. Many are familiar with St. Augustine, whose birthday is Nov. 13 and St. Martin de Porres, whose feast day is Nov. 3. Deacon Adams also noted the important role of Daniel Rudd, a journalist and civil rights leader who called for the inclusion of Black Catholics in the church and founded the National Black Catholic Congress.

“He went to Washington, D.C. doing what he thought was right, and people started to recognized the gifts of Black Catholics,” said Deacon Adams. 

He also recognized the gentle, holy, smiling witness of St. Josephine Bakhita. Born in 1869 in Sudan, she was kidnapped at the age of seven and underwent immense suffering throughout her adolescence before discovering the faith in her early 20s. She was baptized and entered the Canossian Sisters in Italy. She is not only the patron saint of her home country, but for human trafficking victims. 

Deacon Adams and Father Tom Clark, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Baton Rouge, also noted that the Catholic faith was enriched by the witness of Black Catholics such as Sister Thea Bowman, who spoke before the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

“Sister Thea, a Franciscan sister, was a very gifted woman who manifested a joyous and exuberant faith. If we all had more joy and enthusiasm to talk about Jesus and show his love to others, we would have a greater impact as Catholics in our city and region,” said Father Clark said. 

Another Black Catholic who should be emulated by all Catholics is Julia Greeley, according to Father Clark.

“An enslaved woman, (Greeley) became known as the ‘Angel of Denver’ after Emancipation. Working as a domestic, she used all her extra money to buy food, clothes and supplies for people in need,” said Father Clark. “What I love the most about her is that she would only deliver these supplies to people at night so that nobody would know and they could preserve their pride and dignity.” 

Thomas Wyatt Turner was another Black Catholic who enriched the faith, said Father Clark. 

“Thomas Wyatt Turner was a church community activist in the 1910s and 20s,” said Father Clark. “He organized an organization called the Federated Colored Catholics and strove relentlessly for Black Catholics to be accorded their rightful place in the church. He fought for the ordination of black men to the priesthood, the integration of Catholic colleges and universities, and he documented cases of discrimination and racism in the church. He was a forerunner of empowered lay leadership.”

In addition to the saints, there are many Black Catholics in the local community who are strong models of living the faith, according to Father Clark, Deacon Adams and Father Ed Chiffriller SSJ, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church in Baton Rouge. St. Francis Xavier will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2018. 

The founding members attended St. Agnes Church in Baton Rouge under segregated circumstances before pooling their resources together to build St. Francis Xavier. The church has parishioners throughout Baton Rouge and beyond, according to Father Chiffriller. 

St. Francis Xavier School was built two years later and will celebrate its 100 year anniversary in 2020. 

Father Chiffriller noted that even during a time of Jim Crow laws and segregation, Black Catholics remained loyal to the church and their faith. 

He noted the theme of St. Francis Xavier’s centennial celebration will be “Through Trials and Tribulations, by God’s Grace We Triumph.” 

In light of the celebration, a committee of young people has also been formed to help encourage their peers to learn about the history of the church. 

“They learn about their history, what their great-grandparents, grandparents and elderly parishioners went through yet remained faithful to the church,” said Father Chiffriller. 

He added, “There has been a lot of adversity, but the their (Black Catholics’) love of God and family allowed them to persevere and be a model of faith to the people.” 

Deacon Adams said while progress has been made concerning racial relations in the Catholic Church and the diocese, more still needs to be done. He said this comes from admitting that there is a problem with racial relations. 

“Most people are afraid to talk about it,” said Deacon Adams. “You try to be patient.” 

He said in understanding Black Catholics, it takes listening to their stories with the understanding that “you have not walked in the other person’s shoes.” 

“We need to become brothers and sisters in the family of Christ,” said Deacon Adams. “It may not come during our time, but the seeds have been planted.” 

Leaders within the Diocese of Baton Rouge have been tilling the soil. 

“The church mirrors the society it serves. Just as we have a racial divide in Baton Rouge and the surrounding region so we have a racial divide in our diocese,” said Father Clark, who is co-chair of the Racial Harmony Commission of the Diocese of Baton Rouge along with Father Josh Johnson, pastor of Holy Rosary Church in St. Amant. “The events of the summer of 2016 present us with a graced opportunity to take action to bridge that divide. The Racial Harmony Commission will be calling a meeting in January of all persons in the diocese who want to work together to bridge the racial divide.” 

Father Clark said, “One of the ways in which we will do this is to invite parishes and individuals into dialogue. By dialogue, we mean active listening to one another that leads to action. This dialogue will fundamentally be a learning process to understand that racism is systemic and that it functions in the policies and practices of institutions to deprive some of their rights because of the color of their skin. Once we see how policies and practices discriminate, intentionally or unintentionally, we can then take action to change them. We also plan to collaborate with others in the city and region for a Day of Racial Healing in January.”