Xavier Joins Effort Seeking Sainthood For 5 Black Catholics


NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Members of several Catholic groups are uniting their efforts in New Orleans as they push to strengthen the case for canonizing five African Americans, including the city's own Venerable Henriette Delille.

The new coalition held one of its first meetings July 31 at the St. Katharine Drexel Chapel on Xavier University of Louisiana's campus. Xavier and its Institute for Black Catholic Studies hosted more than 80 Catholics who are dedicated to elevating five candidates for sainthood, including Delille. The group of candidates also includes:

The Venerable Pierre Toussaint

Servant of God Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, O.S.P.

Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton

Servant of God Julia Greeley

Members of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, the National Black Sisters Conference, the National Black Catholic Seminarians Association, and the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons filled the chapel July 31 to advocate for the five candidates.

Those involved in the effort say their causes are important for all people — including people of color — who long for a relatable role model. Most know the names and faces of those whose deaths or lives sparked today's civil rights and social movements. Rev. A. Gerard Jordan, the diocesan postulator for Tolton's cause, said that's not the case for these five people who lived in the late 18th Century and the 19th Century.

"You don't remember Pierre or Henriette or Father Augustus because they've been forgotten about," Jordan said, speaking after the conference. "They've been hidden, and something's wrong about that."

Toussaint was taken from Haiti, enslaved and brought to New York City to work as a hairdresser, where he eventually was able to keep his earnings and buy his freedom. Many scholars, including Jordan, view Toussaint as the "father" of Catholic Charities, which is considered the largest social service provider nationwide after the federal government.

Delille founded the Holy Family Sisters, an order of nuns committed to caring for the city's elderly, poor and sick. Jordan said Delille's order essentially started the nursing home system in the nation. The Holy Family order also taught people who were unable to get an education in a segregated society.

Lange, another person formally enslaved, founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore. The order educated black children and gave black women an opportunity to enter religious life.

Tolton, a Missouri native considered among many to be America's first black priest, traveled to Rome for his priestly training because no U.S. seminary would accept him. His ministry at home attracted white congregants, and he eventually moved to Chicago and founded St. Monica's, the city's first black Roman Catholic parish.

Greeley, who is viewed as "Denver's Angel of Charity," was born into slavery in Missouri. She lost her right eye as a child after a slavemaster hit her while he was beating Greeley's mother. Greeley became a housekeeper for white families in several states after being freed by Missouri's 1865 Emancipation Act. She eventually entered a Catholic church in Denver and joined the Secular Franciscan Order, where she worked to serve the poor until her death in 1918.

The Roman Catholic Church does not have any African American saints, though there are several saints of African descent. The process to sainthood itself can take years, if not decades, because candidates must be vetted through four major steps, according to the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Lange, Tolton and Greeley have passed the first level of the approval process, which requires a bishop to ask the Vatican for permission to open a tribunal to determine if a candidate should be named a "servant of God."

A candidate is declared venerable when the Vatican is convinced, after studying the historical record, that they lived a life of "heroic virtue." Toussaint and Delille have both been formally declared venerable, Toussaint by Pope John Paul II in 1996 and Delille by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.

Beatification is the third level that requires martyrdom or documentation of a miracle. Canonization requires documentation of a second miracle.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are also expected to approve efforts to put Thea Bowman, who both taught at Xavier and helped to create the first African American hymnal, on the path to sainthood.

Xavier President Reynold Verret said Aug. 2 the university is committed to celebrating Bowman if she's officially deemed a "servant of God." To that end, Xavier is working to create a national resource center to serve as a sort of hub for the various sainthood efforts. The center will help gather scholarly research focused on the lives of the candidates, as well as that of Xavier foundress St. Katharine Drexel and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.

Verret said Xavier's standing as the only historically black and Catholic university in the nation makes it the ideal host for such an effort. He also said it fits with the school's mission to serve the community.

For too long, the achievements of African Americans and other people of color have been overlooked or left out of historical record entirely, he said. He considers the effort to teach the public about the lesser-known Catholics "a mass education" campaign.

"It's about telling the truth," Verret said.

– by Wilborn P. Nobles III, AP reporter

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