Denouncing racial injustice as a sin while honoring the contributions of six Black holy men and women on the road to sainthood were the core messages of a special Gospel Mass celebrated at Christ Cathedral on March 11.
Fr. Brendan Busse, pastor of Dolores Mission Church in East Los Angeles and board member of Loyola Institute of Spirituality, presided over the Mass, with hundreds in attendance, including Bishop Kevin Vann, Cathedral Rector Fr. Bao Thai, and other clergy. Deacon Darrell Miller, the first African American to be ordained a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Orange, proclaimed the Gospel.
In January, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a statement announcing beatification and canonization causes of six inspirational African American Catholics: Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Servant of God Mother Mary Lange, Venerable Henriette Delille, Venerable Augustus Tolton, Servant of God Julia Greeley and Sister Thea Bowman.
Any person, philosophy or system that would question the holiness of the six African American holy men and women should be shouted down, Fr. Busse said.
“Today, Christ invites to remember that there is not holiness without wholeness,” he added. “I’m proud to say that our Catholic Church takes that notion very seriously, that we don’t become human alone. We can’t save ourselves alone. It’s not just me and my family. But it’s me and my family
all around the world. That I think is what it means to be a saint.”
Fr. Busse, meanwhile, cited examples of racial injustices occurring throughout our country’s history, such as separate drinking fountains and swimming pools and segregated churches and buses.
“The sin of racism is a sin of many generations, of systems and structures,” Fr. Busse said. “It’s not just about our personal biases and prejudice although those are important. It’s about the big picture story.
This Gospel Mass is a way for us to pray together, to acknowledge our sin of racism together, to acknowledge the holiness of these six African American saints and ask for their intercession for us, individually and corporately, that we will open our hearts to God’s gift of repentance and forgiveness and the Beloved Community to which we are called, a unity ultimately made possible only by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Bishop Kevin Vann offered concluding comments extending his gratitude to the organizers and making a personal note of his connection to Venerable Fr. Augustus Tolton from his home diocese of Springfield whose grave at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Quincy he visited regularly.
Prior to the start of Mass, Greg Walgenbach, director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace at the Diocese of Orange, read passages from the book, “Black Catholics on the Road to Sainthood,” a biography of the six holy men and women.
“At a time when our country continues to reel from the pain and fear surrounding racial injustice and when violence is occurring in its wake, many believe the church should make a concerted effort to bring greater attention to bring witness and holiness of the African Americans with open canonization causes,” said Walgenbach, quoting from the book. “The very legacy of holiness of these six Black Catholics on the path to canonization is therefore a great blessing for the Church in America, for all of us. The light they magnify cannot be hidden under a bushel basket. Instead, it must be shared.”
The Gospel Mass came to fruition based on a collaboration between Walgenbach, Lori Stanley, executive director of the Loyola Institute of Spirituality in Orange and assisted by the Knights of Peter Claver, Sister Thea Bowman Council 406, based at Christ Cathedral Campus. Stanley and Walgenbach had helped to co-facilitate a Just Faith workshop on Faith, Race and Social Justice, at the end of which each participant shared commitments to action in response.
Stanley approached Walgenbach about the possibility of celebrating special Mass at Christ Cathedral to raise awareness about these six African American religious leaders. Eddie Hilley, director of music at St. Agatha in Los Angeles, with a small choir, was invited to lead the people of God in prayerful song.
“The impetus for me to elevate knowledge of the six Black holy men and women on the road to canonization was my belief that we are created to worship God and to serve others,” Stanley said. “These six holy men and women endured unbelievable suffering and dehumanizing treatment yet their abiding relationship with Christ strengthened their faith, fortified their
missions to be courageous prophets of love. in serving God, they served all people in need without distinction.”
The six religious leaders are:
PIERRE TOUSSAINT (1776-1853) A philanthropist and founder of many Catholic charitable works, Toussaint was born into slavery in Haiti and then brought from Haiti to New York to serve as an apprentice under a popular hairstylist in the city. Toussaint went on to become quite wealthy, using his resources to support the Church and the poor.
Toussaint and his wife provided shelter for orphans, refugees and others on the streets and founded one of New York’s first orphanages. He also raised money for the city’s first cathedral.
SERVANT OF GOD MOTHER MARY ELIZABETH LANGE (1784-1882) A native of the Caribbean, and believed to be a Cuban of Haitian descent, Mary Elizabeth Lange was the founder and first Superior General of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious congregation of African American women in the history of the Catholic Church.
In 1829, Lange and three other women professed their vows to become the Oblate Sisters of Providence with the goal of evangelizing and African Americans. They educated youth and provided a home for orphans.
VENERABLE HENRIETTE DELILLE (1813-1862). Henriette Delille was born in New Orleans, Louisiana and spent her entire life in the city. Following the mandate of the Gospel, she dedicated her life to helping those in need. Henriette was also a person who suffered as she made her way through life, and she bore many crosses. She taught those around her that sanctity can be attained in following the path of Jesus. Delille persevered in the face of racial injustice, relying on faith and in the belief that she was doing God’s work.
The USCCB wrote: “She taught those around her that sanctity can be attained in following the path of Jesus. It was in this manner that she dealt with her troubles and major obstacles to achieve her goals.”
VENERABLE FR. AUGUSTUS TOLTON (1854-1897). Fr. Tolton was the first U.S. Roman Catholic priest publicly known to be Black when he was ordained in 1886. As a former slave who was baptized and raised as a Catholic, Fr. Tolton formally studied in Rome and was ordained in Rome.
Fr. Tolton led the development and construction of St. Monica’s Catholic Church in Chicago as a Black “National Parish Church.” The church was completed in 1893.
His success at providing spiritual guidance to Black Catholics quickly earned him national attention within the Catholic hierarchy.
JULIA GREELEY (1833 – 1848- 1918). Servant of God Julia Greeley was born into slavery in Hannibal, Missouri sometime between 1833 and 1848. Freed by Missouri’s Emancipation Act in 1865, Greeley entered the Catholic Church at Sacred Heart Parish in Denver in 1880 and went on to serve throughout the parish.
The Jesuits who ran the parish considered her the most enthusiastic promoter of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus they had ever seen. Every month, Greely delivered literature of the Sacred Heart League at every fire station in Denver. She received communion every day and was strongly devoted to the Blessed Sacrament and the Blessed Virgin. In 1901, Greeley joined the Secular Franciscan Order and was active in the order until till her death in 1918. As part of the Cause for Canonization, Greeley’s remains were transferred to Denver’s Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in June 2017.
SR. THEA BOWMAN, FSPA1937-1990). Sr. Thea Bowman of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration was born to middle-aged parents. Raised in Canton, Mississippi, St. Bowman converted to Catholicism as a child, after being inspired by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity who were her teachers and pastors at Holy Child Jesus Church and School in Canton.
Throughout her life, many Catholics considered Sr. Bowman a religious sister, who was close to God and who lovingly invited others to encounter the presence of God in their lives.