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New coalition seeks sainthood for five African-Americans

Pierre Toussaint, from left, Mary Elizabeth Lange, Julia Greeley and Augustus Tolton are some of the African-American candidates being supported for sainthood. Photos via Creative Commons; Greeley courtesy of Archdiocese of Denver

(RNS) — The founders of two religious orders and an African-American priest who had to train in Rome because no U.S. seminary would accept him are among five candidates being supported for sainthood by a new coalition of black Catholic organizations.

The initiative was announced Tuesday (July 31) at Xavier University in New Orleans, where a new resource center will be established to facilitate research on these candidates and other black Catholics.

Lining up behind the effort are Xavier’s Institute for Black Catholic Studies, 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. Although the Catholic Church has many saints of African descent, it has no black American saints.

Scholarly research is important “for the larger church, understanding the role of African-Americans in building the church,” said Xavier President Reynold Verret. Documentation of a person’s life, including expressions of virtue and performance of miracles, is generally required for progress on the path to sainthood.

The candidates are:

  • Pierre Toussaint, 1766-1853, a former slave who parlayed his connections as a hairdresser to prominent New Yorkers into a career of charity.
  • Henriette Delille, 1813-1862, a mixed-race woman who founded Sisters of the Holy Family, a religious order based in New Orleans.
  • Mary Elizabeth Lange, c. 1794-1882, who founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore.
  • Augustus Tolton, 1854-1897, identified by Xavier as America’s first black Catholic priest, who had to train in Rome because no U.S. seminary would take him.
  • Julia Greeley, c. 1840-1918, a former slave who became known as Denver’s Angel of Charity for her support of poor families.

The five candidates all are in the early stages of the journey to sainthood, which in the Roman Catholic Church is a four-stage process. Lange, Tolton and Greeley have attained the first level, in which a diocesan tribunal affirms that they lived lives of “heroic virtue.”

Delille and Toussaint have attained the second level, veneration, meaning they have been proclaimed heroic in virtue by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints with the approval of the pope. The next level, beatification, generally requires documentation of one miracle (except in the case of a martyr). Canonization, the fourth level, requires two miracles.

The process can take decades or even centuries. Verret said advocacy for Toussaint was under way in the 1970s.

Some credit Toussaint with inspiring the creation of Catholic Charities, one of the largest charitable organizations in the United States. After being freed from slavery, he financially supported his former slave master’s widow through his work as a hairdresser for the rich and famous in New York City, including the family of Alexander Hamilton. Through Toussaint’s connections, he helped create several organizations serving the destitute of the city without regard to race.

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Kirk Petersen

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  • Augustus Tolton, 1854-1897, identified by Xavier as America’s first black Catholic priest

    More precisely, Tolton was the first U.S. person of publicly acknowledged African descent to be ordained a Catholic priest. There were other Americans, whose African descent was not publicly known, who had been ordained earlier. One of these would become the president of Georgetown University: Fr. Patrick F. Healy, S.J., son of an African-American slave and an Irish-American planter.

  • His oldest brother, James Augustine Healy (ordained in 1854), became the bishop of Portland, Maine in 1875. The first man of African descent to become a Catholic bishop in the US.

  • If we are members of the christian faith and believe in Jesus and follow his him and his word the Bible then we are saints! There is no hierarchy of believer on earth. We are all all sinners. Only Jesus lived a perfectly righteous holy life!

  • There is no hierarchy of believer on earth.

    Catholic candidates for sainthood are believed to be no longer on earth.

  • Hi, Rick. This is off-topic, but I wanted to let you know that I’ve been in dialogue lately with Monica DeAngelis from the old NCR site. She’s interested in putting together a discussion blog for some of the old NCR regulars, and maybe a few others. It wouldn’t be ideologically based, but it would be by invitation only, which, hopefully, would help keep the rancor to a minimum. Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll keep you up to date as things progress. And feel free to pass this on to others you run across from the old site.

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