African American candidates celebrated 

By Richard Meek  

The Catholic Commentator

Emotion, fueled by centuries of oppression but buoyed with the idealism of hope, permeated the nearly 100-year-old walls of Holy Rosary Church in St. Amant on a steamy Saturday morning.  

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Sister Mary Laura Mercier SSF, a member of the Holy Family Sisters for 53 years, tells her vocation story to more than 200 people gathered for A Day of Reflection: African Americans on the Path to Sainthood on Aug. 17 at Holy Family Church in St. Amant Holy Rosary pastor Father Joshua Johnson looks on as Sister Laura speaks. Photos by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator

 

More than 200 people gathered at Holy Rosary on Aug. 17 for “A Day of Reflection: African Americans on the Path to Sainthood.” The day focused on six African Americans whose causes for sainthood are in varying stages.  

Currently, there are no African American saints.  

Speakers spoke on the lives of the candidates, who include Mother Henriette De Lille of New Orleans, Pierre Toussaint of New York, Mary Elizabeth Lange of Baltimore, Venerable Father Augustus Tolton of Chicago, Julie Greeley of Denver and Sister Thea Bowman of Canton, Mississippi.  

But the speakers provided much more than a glimpse into the lives of the would-be saints. The presenters spoke of the difficulties each of the candidates faced, discussed the abuse some suffered, and how they used their own faith to persevere and lead lives as a “servant of God.”   

The presenters used the lives of the saints to  intersperse inspirational messages that challenged those in attendance, which transcended race and ethnicity.   

“I find it very interesting most of (candidates for sainthood) are from the 19th century,” said Bishop Joseph N. Perry of Chicago who is the Postulator of the Cause for Father Tolton. “If you can imagine the historical topography of that area, these six people, with the exception of Thea Bowman, emerged in an atmosphere of great paradox and contradiction.   

“And these five emerged in that period which was extremely ambivalent and viscous toward black people.”  Holy Rosary pastor Father Joshua Johnson, the lone African American priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, challenged the attendees regarding their own dedication to their spiritual lives. He said people will have various reasons for not having Christ accompanying them on their spiritual journeys.  

He said some people will push it off until they have kids or wait until they’re retired.   

“When I’m retired, I’m going to play bingo,” Father Johnson said as a trickle of laughter could be heard.   

“So why do we push it off?” Father Johnson asked. “The common reason is we don’t see ourselves represented in the church. If I don’t see myself in the artwork, the stained glass, maybe it’s not for me.”  

He said it’s the same rule for saints.   

 The altar and sanctuary contained pictures of each of the six African American candidates for sainthood.  

 

“Maybe (that’s the reason) we don’t feel we can be saints,” Father Johnson said. “We don’t see us in the church. It’s changing today. It’s a new day.”  

Father Tony Ricard of the Archdiocese of New Orleans immediately commanded the attention of the gathering when he began his presentation on Mother Henriette De Lille by entering from the back of the church  singing “Oh Freedom,” which was a post-Civil War African American freedom song and was often associated with the Civil Rights Movement. Father Ricard weaved humor into his dynamic presentation as he discussed some of the darkest times the country has faced.  He told of times when slave masters attempted to control how African Americans were allowed to pray.   

“When you think you can control God’s ear, you must think you’re God,” Father Ricard said.   

He recalled how slaves would go out into the woods to pray at night. To ensure not being caught, the slaves would post a “listener,” whose job was to walk around the mansion throughout the night so as to be able to warn others if necessary.   

“They would pray like never before,” Father Ricard said, adding they were celebrating good music, good preaching and faith.  

“They had to shout, they had to sing,” he added, tying it in to the upbeat and rousing music heard even today in many predominantly African American churches.   

“No man, woman has the power to tell you how to talk to God,” he said.   

Relating Henriette De Lille’s life to today, Father Ricard said one only has to look at her life and then ask themselves will people be talking about them in a similar way after they are gone. 

“Will we be on that same journey of faith, not worried whether or not outside of my tomb will have ‘St.’ but will (people) feel the power of God’s love?” he said. “(Will people say) ‘I know for a fact, without a shadow of a doubt, that this was a servant of God.’  

“Henriette is on that journey of faith. We truly believe that one day God is going to bless our church by having this woman of faith listed among the saints.”  

Bishop Michael G. Duca, who spoke briefly, said he could not help being drawn into the mystery of God’s love by seeing the beautiful faces of the candidates for sainthood at the altar.   

“And it reminds us, when saints look like us, they are part of the American culture, walking the same path, they are part of our family.”  

“It is my privilege to be a part of this today,” said Bishop Duca, who recently celebrated his one-year anniversary as the diocese’s shepherd. “I am just beginning to understand the vitality and questions and challenges of the African American community here. I’m listening and trying hard to meet the needs and hopefully grow us together as one diocese.”  

Bishop Perry detailed the life of  Father Tolton, and how his path to becoming the country’s first African American priest can be traced from his roots along the shores of the Mississippi River in Missouri, through Rome and back to Chicago. Bishop Perry noted how there was fierce renunciation of the Catholic Church from the Protestant community for defying the laws that the major religious institutions of the United States could not promote or accept Black people.  

“Was Tolton really a priest or a fake priest?” Bishop Perry asked.   

Even Father Tolton’s clergy colleagues organized against him, and when white people began attending his Mass at his parish in Quincy, Illinois the bishop at the time told him to minister to black people only, and “leave the white people alone.”  

Father Tolton eventually moved to Chicago, where he was welcomed by the archbishop at the time. Father Tolton helped establish St. Monica, the first African American church in the area, and the congregation rapidly blossomed from 30 to more than 600.  

Bishop Perry also spoke on how society has placed values on certain colors, and that black and brown have been “attributed to everything that is evil.”  

“Isn’t that interesting?” he asked. “How do you speak to your children or grandchildren with their box of Crayons?”  

“We are in an unprecedented time,” Bishop said of the six African American candidates for sainthood. “It will be a celebrated event when that happens. Hopefully, each will be canonized in our lifetime.”  

Father Johnson said that as each of the candidates are canonized, churches and schools will be named after them and they will be depicted art work and stained glass windows.  

“We’ll see canonized saints that look like us,” he said. “That will inspire us to say ‘me too.’ ” 

He said saints are found in “our interior life” and that African Americans are being asked not to “settle for mediocrity.”  

Also delivering presentations were Dr. Ansel Augustine, a faculty member of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans; Gather A. Gerard Jordan of Paoli, Pennsylvania; Al Carter, a New Orleans native who is currently an administrator at the New Center for Creative Arts; and Sister Laura Mercier SSF, who has been a member of the Holy Family community, which was founded by Henriette Delille, for 53 years.  

The day included eucharastic adoration, discussion groups, meditation time and a closing Mass.