By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator  

Long before his ordination Father Joshua Johnson would cringe walking through the atrium of the Catholic Life Center, being greeted by a reminder of a sordid chapter of American history.  

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The Path to Sainthood display in the atrium of the Catholic Life Center features portraits of six African Americans in various steps of the sainthood process. They surround the Black Madonna holding the baby Jesus. Pictured clockwise, beginning top left, are Father Augustus Tolton, Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Venerable Henriette Delille, Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, Sister Thea Bowman FSPA and Julia Greely. Photos by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator 

 

Prominently displayed in the atrium was Adalie Brent’s “Religious History of the Diocese of Baton Rouge,” depicting African Americans and whites during the Civil War. Sparking Father Johnson’s ire and that of many others was a Catholic priest on his knees blessing a Confederate flag.  

“It did not sit well with me,” said Father Johnson, the lone African American priest in the diocese.  

Today, walking those same steps Father Johnson rejoices, a smile replacing what was once a frown. Bigotry has given way to hope, racism yielding to equality.  

Prominently displayed in that same spot are portraits of six African Americans in varying stages on the path to sainthood.  

Canvas paintings of Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, Venerable Henriette Delille, Father Augustus Tolton, Julia Greely and Sister Thea Bowman beautifully surround a stunning portrait of the Black Madonna holding the baby Jesus. Included under each portrait is a history of the saint and a prayer.  

The contrast and symbolism from the past to the present is not lost on Father Johnson, who serves as vocations director for the diocese and pastor at Holy Rosary Church in St. Amant.  

“Every time I see it I smile,” he said. “I have a devotion to those six African Americans who are on the path to holiness.”  

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James Porter, who works in the CLC maintenance department, arranges the portrait of Venerable Pierre Toussaint. Father Joshua Johnson said it was “beautiful” for the maintenance workers, the majority of whom are African American, to be commissioned to put up the display.  

 

The idea for the mural was borne in the wake of the shooting of Alton Sterling in 2016. Shortly after the shooting, a time when three law enforcement officials were killed and three others injured, Bishop-Emeritus Robert W. Muench convened Father Johnson and Deacon Alfred Adams, director of the Office of Black Catholics, for a meeting to discuss ways in which the diocese could be a leader in helping ease the racial tension that gripped the city at the time.  

Father Johnson told the bishop if the diocese was going to present solutions and resources for the public, then “we have to clean up the house (at the CLC).” 

“I said ‘I just don’t know what we can talk about or do out there if we don’t address it (internally),’ ” Father Johnson recalled.  

“The (Confederate) flag is a symbol of racism, white supremecy,” Deacon Adams said. “We said that is not good.”  

Bishop-Emeritus Muench was open to the idea of removing the mural, which was completed in 1970 and for which Brent was paid $5,400 by Bishop Robert E. Tracy. After much discussion, the mural came down in early 2019, several months after the installation of Bishop Michael G. Duca.  

The focus then shifted as to what should replace the mural. During a day of reflection titled “African Americans on the Path to Sainthood” held Aug. 17, 2019 at Holy Rosary, Deacon Adams said the idea came to him of placing portraits of the six African Americans in the vacant spot. 

Deacon Adams said Bishop Duca embraced the idea and after further discussions that included input from the Archives Department and the Office of Marriage and Family Life work began. 

In June, the majority of the work was completed, the only missing piece being a title to be placed above the display.  

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Deacon Alfred Adams, director of the Office of Black Catholics for the Diocese of Baton Rouge and a member of the Racial Harmony Commission, admires the portraits of the six African Americans on the path to sainthood. Deacon Adams and Father Joshua Johnson were instrumental in having the display placed in the CLC.  

 

“When people come I’m hoping they can come in, look at it and ask ‘why did they put this up?’ ” Deacon Adams said. “That is why we put (the portraits) with prayer.  

“It is a chance to look at that and hopefully share with their families.”  

Deacon Adams acknowledged he has received some negative feedback but with a sense of pride reaffirmed that the candidates are all African American descendants.  

“They are not African. Hopefully, generations behind us will be able to say these are African American saints, and they will know some of the history,” he said.  

“What was beautiful for me was that the maintenance workers (the majority of whom are African American) were commissioned to install the display,” Father Johnson said. “For me as a Black man who now works in the chancery, to see those guys standing there, looking at the artwork, reading the lives of the saints, it’s now drawing them (to their faith). What is that doing for them, to see themselves represented as people who have the capacity to be saints?”  

“We now have this artwork in our chancery that says to people of color you can be a saint too. Holiness is for you.”  

Father Johnson said he is always amazed how artwork can draw people to become saints, or can also push people away.  

“Those images (of the six African Americans) can inspire white Catholics to imitate the white Catholics who accepted those six African Americans,” Father Johnson said. “Even if they were all persecuted by white Catholics, they were also accompanied by some Catholics who walked with them, who journeyed with them in discipleship.”  

“I think their journeys can inspire a whole new generation of white Catholics to say ‘I want to be a white Catholic who has the potential to form more Black saints. I want to be a bridge and not be a barrier for people in the United States to become saints,” he added. “I see so many possibilities what can happen for our people in the diocese, to be motivated to take action and work with people of color to (undo) unjust practices and bring about a civilization of love.  

“I think it’s the start of something very beautiful that is going to happen for our diocese.”  

Father Johnson is also hopeful the display will inspire other churches to install similar displays, such as Immaculate Conception Church in Baton Rouge has done already. Father Johnson said he has also been contacted by other pastors as well, including one from a predominantly white parish.  

His hope is the inspirational stories of the six African Americans will motivate people of color to become active in ministry because “they see themselves.”  

Deacon Adams is hopeful the display can help Catholics understand the church is one of many different faces.  

“We must live it,” he said. “We are trying to show the church for what is really is. It is universal.”  

Father Johnson said individual portraits of the six African American candidates for sainthood are available in the Holy Rosary gift shop. For more information, call  225-450-9571. 

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Sister Thea Bowman FSPA, a self-proclaimed “old folks’ child,” was born in Canton, Mississippi and converted to Catholicism. She died in 1990 at the age of 52.