PITTSFORD — The question of who were the first black priests and bishops in the United States is a complex one, according to the priest and scholar who literally wrote the book on the history of black Catholics in the United States.
Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis of St. Meinrad Archabbey, a professor of church history at St. Meinrad School of Theology, said the first three black priests in the U.S. were not universally recognized as being black.
He spoke Nov. 13 at Nazareth College, sketching out vignettes of some significant black Catholics.
“The story of the Catholic Church in America cannot be told without black Catholics,” said Father Davis, author of 1990’s The History of Black Catholics in the United States.
The three priests, including one who would also become the first black Catholic bishop, were brothers born as slaves in Georgia to Irishman Michael Morris Healy and his mistress, Mary Eliza, who was a light-skinned slave.
Though their father had not been overly religious, the Healy boys’ vocations developed through their father’s friendship with Boston Bishop John Fitzpatrick, who urged the elder Healy to send his sons to Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass.
The sons were Father James Augustine Healy (1830-1900), who would become vicar-general of the Archdiocese of Boston and the second bishop of the Diocese of Portland, Maine; Jesuit Father Patrick Francis Healy (1834-1910), who would become president of Georgetown College, which ironically did not admit African-American students until the middle of the 20th century; and Father Alexander Sherwood Healy (1836-75), who served as the Bishop of Boston’s personal theologian at the First Vatican Council, the first and only African-American to participate in an ecumenical council.
“Really, the family was all over-achievers who were not able to identify with the American-American community; they had no sympathetic response to African-American blacks,” Father Davis said.
Since the three priests were not universally recognized by contemporaries as being black, the first black Catholic priest in the U.S. universally recognized as black was Augustus Tolton, (1854-1897), a Missouri-born slave whose parents were both slaves and Catholics.
During the middle of the Civil War, Father Tolton’s mother, Martha, fled with her three children to the free state of Illinois. She was rebuffed several times before being able to enroll her children in a Catholic school. Similarly, her son would face barriers and find success throughout his career.
“No seminary in the United States was willing to accept a black student,” Father Davis said.
Fortunately, he was accepted into a seminary in Rome that was attached to the Congregation of the Propaganda, which is now the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
“Overnight, the hopeless situation had become a marvelous opportunity,” Father Davis said.
Father Tolton was ordained in 1886 at age 32 and returned to Quincy, Ill., where he was made pastor of St. Joseph Church, drawing many whites and black Protestants to the church. He transferred to the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1889, where he received financial help from St. Katherine Drexel, the founder of the religious order the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
Even though African-American clergy was a focus of Father Davis’ talk, he did not limit the discussion to priests.
He also spoke about free black settlements in Florida that were available to escaped slaves in the 18th century, provided they convert to Roman Catholicism. That was how African-born escaped slave Francisco Menendez came to Florida; he commanded a militia that fought against British invaders, and he served on a Spanish warship.
“Menendez was more than a survivor; he was a leader,” Father Davis said.
Father Davis traced the roots of black Catholic women religious, such as New Orleans-born Henriette Delille, who founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, and Elizabeth Lange, who led three fellow Haitian-born women in founding the Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1829.
He noted that his historical scholarship is not yet complete. He said he hopes to publish a second edition of his book that includes the history of black Catholics in the Civil Rights movements.
A convert to Roman Catholicism at age 15, Father Davis said his interest in the church was due in part to reading about the Middle Ages and knowing a lot of black Catholics in his hometown of Washington, D.C. It also helped that the word “catholic” means universal, he said.
“I knew I longed for a church that embraces all,” Father Davis said.
Father Davis’ talk drew a crowd of about 75 people.
“I really was unaware of how far back the history of black Catholics go,” said Jessamyn Slon, a junior at Nazareth majoring in religious studies and English who is a parishioner of St. Paul Parish in Webster.
Dion Ducet of Rochester, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish, said Father Davis was correct in mentioning that many black Catholics left the church when their parishes closed in the past several decades. That trend has changed, he said.
“It’s good to see that black Catholics who have left are coming back to the fold,” he said.
Gaynelle Wethers, director of Multicultural Affairs at Nazareth and a member of Immaculate Conception, said Father Davis’ speech highlighted how black Catholics have long had to work against many kinds of barriers, such as a lack of funds.
“We have to continue to work at justice and peace,” Wethers said.