A lesson in U.S. black Catholic history

Dominican Sister Jamie Phelps (CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)

ROME — February was Black History Month in the United States, and the “Catholic angle” of this event was explored in a talk in Rome by Dominican Sister Jamie Phelps. director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of New Orleans.

Sister Phelps spoke at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas of Aquinas, also known as the Angelicum, at a program organized by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.

The U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Miguel Diaz, said black Catholics were a little-known but important segment of American society, and he wanted Rome to hear about it.

As Sister Phelps put it, black Catholics have a dynamic history of “uncommon faithfulness” in the church, but it’s one that has been generally invisible — even to other Catholics. She recalled that when she was growing up, people would look puzzled when she and her family showed up at Catholic events and tell her, “You’re supposed to be Protestant.”

There are about 3 million African American Catholics in the United States today, she said. They generally identify closely with the teachings of the church, on matters from abortion to concern for the poor.

“What resonates with the worldview of African American Catholics is respect for the dignity of the human person,” she said.

Black Catholics are proud of their religious history. There were early popes and saints from Northern Africa, “and we claim them as our own,” Sister Phelps said.

“We recognize that missionaries who came to Africa gifted us with Catholicism, even as they defined us as less than themselves,” she said.

Sister Phelps said that by establishing schools for black Catholics as far back as the 1800s and by maintaining Catholic schools in inner cities over the last 100 years, U.S. bishops played a key role in promoting social justice. She worries, however, that economic pressures are eroding that commitment to education.

“We are losing black Catholics … there really is a battle on for that. The closing of schools is one of our big concerns,” she said. For more than a hundred years, she said, Catholic schools have been the major instrument of evangelization in black communities.

“So it’s sort of crazy for us to be engaged in evangelization in one breath, and to be closing Catholic schools in the other breath. You need to meet people where they are,” she said.

The reasons given always have to do with money, but Sister Phelps says she finds those arguments unconvincing.

“It seems to me we’re one church, and there are some rich Catholics in the United States and there are some rich parishes. What’s the obligation of those rich Catholic parishes to nurture and sustain the Catholic Church in the inner city, where we’re supposed to be doing our ministry to the poor?” she said.

She added: “Don’t get me wrong, all black Catholics are not poor. So we should make it come out of their pockets also.”

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5 Responses to A lesson in U.S. black Catholic history

  1. Colin says:

    This may just be me, but growing up in america I find that articles like these are a bit disturbing. Though there was no ill intent in the actions of Sister Phelps, I’ve always had an issue with drawing attention to these things. Why must it be about “black” catholics? Why do we still segregate one another during these times? Even if it is seperate but equal God does not want division amongst his children. We are all brothers and sisters so why must it be “black history” or “white history”? Though they do not set out to damage anyone these brief moments when we seperate ourselves from one another to promote the history or accomplishments of a race or ethnicity is kind of appalling. I expect it in america as this has become a horribly sinful place though I suppose it saddens me to see the Holy Church acknowledge such differences amongst its flock. It’s high time we leave pointless things like race in the past where it belongs. We are of one body and soul and I pray someday we all dispel these barriers that prevent unification with one another.

  2. Rick Evans says:

    For the past several years my wife and I have been spending a couple of months in the heart of Mexico. We rent a casa in a Mexican neighborhood on the outskirts of San Miguel de Allende. I just got home from 1:00 PM Sunday mass at our neighborhood church La Parroquia de San Antonio de Padua. It’s a fairly large, beautiful 16th century structure that has 5 Sunday masses. Last Sunday we went to 6:00 PM mass in the same church. Perhaps we weren’t the only Norte Americanos, its hard to tell, but I know there weren’t many. Both this week and last the church was packed. Standing room only. The people are mostly poor. They throw a few pesos in the basket. So, what’s going on? In the U.S. this building would probably have long since been abandoned, replaced, or torn down. What are they doing right down here? I really don’t have a clue.

  3. Polish Catholic says:

    Catholicism has a uniqueness that provides for us a common faith but promotes our individual heritages. There is so much that could be shared. In Poland, there is an icon of Mary holding the Christ Child in the town of Czestochowa. Our Lady of Czestochowa is called in Polish “Czarna Madonna” or Black Madonna.
    In Pennsylvania there is a replica of the icon of the Black Madonna. Many Polish people visit here. On one occasion there were African Americans visiting.
    It became so clear that this was a way to unite Catholics. For centuries, white Catholics were and are inspired by Our Lady of Czestochowa. The Black Madonna should inspire all people of all colors. The early Church did not distinguish self value on color or ethnicity. Our Church’s history is based on fusion of many cultures like Hebrew, Greek, Roman, and North African. Diversity in culture and heritage is healthy and should be promoted. You never know what you will find. Maybe you will find that white Catholics have had icons of the Black madonna in their homes for centuries. Hopefully she becomes an inspiration for African Americans as well.

  4. Black Catholic says:

    Kudos, Sr. Jamie. The “Good News” is that for every Colin who doesn’t get it, there is a Polish Catholic who does. Honoring of ancestors from the many races and cultures of our American past is something to take pride in. The Roman Catholic Church in the United States was built on the concept of the National Church. In addition to addressing language needs, they addressed culture, worship styles, education, secular community gatherings plus a lot more. For African Americans the needs have been and continue to be somewhat different. It’s not an excuse, but a fact. One of our greatest evangelization tools was the Catholic school in our Black neighborhoods. Understanding where we came from is a means to getting to where God wants us to be–One Faith, One Church, One Baptism. Let us be mindful that our church and our country are still works in progress. Highlighting and underscoring the gifts of a particular culture and in particular, African American history and culture, is something to be applauded, embraced and celebrated. Until we get to the day when we all understand and embrace Our Lady of Czestochowa, St. Patrick, St. Juan Diego and St. Moses the Black as true followers of Jesus and role models for all of us to follow and emulate, there will be a need to tell the story. Let’s not confuse inclusion with separation and segregation. That would be appalling. Again, kudos, Sr. Jamie.

  5. US Catholic says:

    Colin, your post is extremely disheartening and reflective of the gross ignorance on the part of most Catholics (and Americans) to the horrors of the U.S. Church’s racist past and present. The fact is that the African-American Catholic community remains small in comparison to other denominations because the U.S. Church actively and deliberately promoted white supremacy. The vast majority of U.S. seminaries refused to accept black candidates well into the 1940s, solely on the basis of race. Thus, the development of a substantial African-American clergy was precluded. The vast majority of U.S. sisterhoods refused the applications of young black girls and women desiring of vocations solely on the basis of race. Many of the nation’s orders never integrated, and the experiences of the young black women and girls who did desegregate historically white religious institute testify the gross unwillingness of many vowed white religious to reject racial privilege and prejudice. The vast majority of U.S. Catholic colleges and universities refused admission to African Americans, including Catholic religious, solely on the basis of race well into the mid-20th century. Moreover, African American Catholics were subjected to the humiliating practice of segregation (being restricted to pews in the back of the Church; being refused the Eucharist until all white parishioners received their first) in American Churches. And please remember, that white urban and Southern Catholics were the foot soldiers of the backlash to the civil and equal rights legislation of the 1960s. Even your attempt to promote a color-blind vision of society is seriously flawed and laced with white supremacy. Color has never been a problem. Discrimination based on color and the promotion of white supremacy was and still is a problem. And be clear, what the U.S. Church was doing was in direction violation of Church canon law. Moroever, all mandates from the Vatican repeatedly criticized the U.S. hierarchy for its practice and promotion of racial segregation and white supremacy. Please know your history before you attempt to dismiss Sister Jamie and the experiences of millions of African Americans, Catholic or otherwise. Only when we confront our painful past, can we as a Church move to the full actualization of love, justice, and peace in our society.

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