Washington D.C., Apr 4, 2019 / 06:13 am (CNA).- Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s appointment Thursday as Archbishop of Washington marks a significant moment for the Archdiocese of Washington. It is also a milestone in the history of African-American Catholics in the U.S.
Since the Archdiocese of Washington was established in 1947, every single archbishop to lead the archdiocese has been elevated to the College of Cardinals. If tradition holds, it is increasingly likely that Gregory will become the first-ever African-American cardinal.
Here is a timeline of some important moments in the history of African-American Catholics in the U.S.:
1565: Slaves and free Africans are a part of the foundation of St. Augustine, Florida, and build much of the city’s infrastructure.
1829: The first religious order for black women in the U.S., the Oblate Sisters of Providence, is established in Baltimore, Maryland.
1839: Pope Gregory XVI condemns the slave trade in an apostolic letter.
1875: James Augustine Healy is consecrated the first African-American bishop.
1899: The National Black Catholic Congress is founded.
1909: The Knights of St. Peter Claver, an African-American Catholic fraternal order, is founded.
1920: St. Augustine Seminary, the first U.S. seminary for African-Americans, is opened.
1962: Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans threatens the excommunication of those who oppose the desegregation of Catholic schools.
1979: U.S. bishops’ conference issues “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” a pastoral letter on racism.
2001: Bishop Wilton Gregory becomes the first African-American president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.
2018: U.S. bishops’ conference issues “Open Wide our Hearts,” a new pastoral letter on racism.
Here are some African-American U.S. Catholic history-makers:
Bishop James Augustine Healy
The first person of African-American descent to be ordained a priest for a U.S. diocese is James Augustine Healy, who was also the first African-American to become a bishop.
Healy, whose mother was a mixed-race slave and whose father was an Irish immigrant, was born in Macon, Georgia in 1830. He is the oldest of 10 siblings, many of whom would also enter religious life.
His brother, Patrick, entered the Jesuit order and became the first man of African-American descent to earn a PhD. He was eventually named the 29th president of Georgetown University. His sister, Eliza, would enter the Congregation of Notre Dame in Montreal and took the name Sr. Mary Magdalen. She became the first African-American woman to be named an abbess after she became superior of the order in 1903.
At the time of Healy’s birth, interracial marriage was not legal in Georgia, and he and his siblings were legally considered slaves. Healy was prohibited from attending school in Georgia, so his father sent him and his siblings to schools in the north. He was the first valedictorian of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA.
After James discerned a call to the priesthood, he was not allowed to study at the Jesuit seminary in Maryland, because Maryland was still a slave state. Instead, he studied in Montreal and eventually Paris, where he was ordained a priest on June 10, 1854.
At the time Healy was ordained, few in the Church were aware of his race.
Healy was a priest in the Archdiocese of Boston, and in 1875, was appointed the second bishop of the Diocese of Portland, ME. Healy was consecrated a bishop on June 2, 1875.
He led the Portland diocese, which covers the entirety of the state of Maine, during a large influx of Catholic immigrants. Healy established 60 new parishes and over a dozen convents and schools during his time as bishop.
He died suddenly at the age of 70 in 1900.
Due to pervasive racism, Healy’s ethnic background was not public knowledge. Healy, who had a lighter complexion, was usually believed to have been entirely of Irish descent.
Father Augustus Tolton
In 1886, 34 years after James Healy was ordained, Servant of God Augustus Tolton was ordained a priest in Rome.
Tolton, the son of African-American slaves, was born in Missouri in 1854. Tolton is the first African-American priest in the United States whose race was widely known to his contemporaries.
It is not known how Tolton and his family gained their freedom. Some say that Tolton escaped to Illinois along with his mother and siblings during the Civil War. Others say that Tolton and his family were freed when the war began. However it happened, Tolton, along with his mother and siblings, moved to Illinois during the war.
A priest eventually allowed Augustus to enroll in a Quincy, Illinois parochial school, which was a controversial decision at the time.
Tolton graduated from St. Francis Solanus College, and then attempted to enter seminary. He was rejected from every American seminary he applied to, but eventually graduated from Pontifical Urban University in Rome. Following his ordination, he returned to the United States.
In the United States, Tolton met with resistance from his mostly-white congregations in Quincy. He was eventually moved to the Archdiocese of Chicago, where he helped to found St. Monica, the city’s first black Catholic Church.
Tolton died at the age of 43 in 1897. In 2011, the Vatican began the formal cause for canonization, and in 2012 he was named a “servant of God.” Last month, the Congregation of the Causes of Saints advanced his cause by unanimously agreeing that Tolton led a “virtuous life.” Now, two miracles must be approved and attributed to Tolton before he can be canonized.
If he were to be canonized, Tolton would be the 13th American saint and the first of African-American descent.
Sr. Thea Bowman
Another African-American figure is also being considered for sainthood: Sr. Thea Bowman.
Sr. Thea, whose grandfather was a slave, was born in Mississippi. She converted to Catholicism as a child, and left home at the age of 15 to move to Wisconsin to the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. She was the community’s first-ever black sister.
While Bowman was enrolled at the Catholic University of America, she helped to found the National Black Sisters Conference, and began to speak on racial issues in the church. In 1980, she was involved in the creation of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans. She taught there for many years. Xavier University in New Orleans is the only Catholic historically black college or university in the United States.
Two years before her death in 1990, Bowman became the first African-American woman to address the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Catholics were involved in the Civil Rights movement in the United States, both with the support and opposition of their bishops.
A number of religious sisters and priests marched from Selma to Montgomery to protest for voting rights, and black parishioners at Selma’s St. Elizabeth parish housed people who were in town for the march.
Catholic schools desegregated in Alabama in 1964, a year after Gov. George Wallace (D) issued a promise of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” in his inaugural address. Throughout the country, Catholic schools desegregated faster than their public counterparts.
Gregory’s predecessor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, wrote in his 2017 pastoral letter “The Challenge of Racism Today” that racism of any form is “a denial of human dignity.”
“No one is better than another person because of the color of their skin or the place of their birth. What makes us equal before God and what should make us equal in dignity before each other is that we are all sisters and brothers of one another, because we are all children of the same loving God who brought us into being,” said Wuerl.
In 2018, the USCCB voted to endorse her cause for canonization at the organization’s November General Assembly. The process is now ongoing.
Also at the 2018 November General Assembly, the bishops voted overwhelmingly to endorse “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love, A Pastoral Letter Against Racism.” This letter was the first time the USCCB has collectively spoken out against racism since 1979.
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