Black Catholic History

All black history begins in Africa.”

 Davis, O.S.B.

Our History

All black history begins in Africa.”1
— Davis, O.S.B.

African Genesis

African historian Kwame Bediako never ceased to remind us that Christianity is a non-Western religion; in other words, Christianity was conceived, emerged, and flourished in the geographic area now known as the Middle East. The First Book of Kings in the Old Testament records the visit of the Queen of Sheba (modern Ethiopia) to King Solomon in Jerusalem. The earliest reference to Ethiopia (Africa) in the New Testament can be found in the Book of Acts,2 which reports experiences of the earliest women and men who formed themselves into house-churches in following ‘the Way’ taught by the Jewish rabbi Jesus of Nazareth, whom we confess as human and divine, Son of God. The Book of Acts tells us that an angel urged the apostle Philip to go out to the lonely stretch of road running from Jerusalem to Gaza. There Philip sees a black man reading aloud from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah while being driven in chariot. This black man is the wealthy and powerful treasurer to the Nubian Candace (kandake) or queen. Overhearing the official, Philip ran alongside the chariot and engaged the man in conversation, asking whether he understood the passage The official stopped the chariot and invited Philip to ride along with him and interpret the passage. Philip not only explained the passage, but evangelized the man, introducing “the good news about Jesus.” When the chariot drew near a body of water, the official requested baptism, and afterward Philip was taken from his sight. The court official continued on his way rejoicing (Acts 8: 26-39). “This unnamed African is the first black [person] to enter the Christian faith.”3 

Christianity came to Ethiopia during the first part of the fourth century through the evangelizing efforts of two Syrians, Frumentius and Edesius, and by the end of the fifth century was firmly established as the official religion of the kingdom.4 Christianity flowered in Ethiopia with “liturgical texts, sacred rites like the dance, music (including the use of the drum that was unique to Ethiopia), and artwork and architecture”5 like the rock-carved cruciform churches of Lalibela, and a theological school located in its capital of Axum. 

In the history of the church, Ethiopia occupies a special place. Here we have an African church that has its roots in the early church. Before the church was established in Ireland or Anglo-Saxon England or any country in northern Europe, a Catholic church blossomed in an African culture.6

Finally, recall the contributions of our theological and prophetic African ancestors:––Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Athanasius, Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine, and Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita.7 

Slavery was a moral fiction.  Yet, from this brutalized form of existence, as Jamie Phelps reminds us, erupted “black religious thoughts of freedom.”

American Slavery

Slavery was deeply entangled with Christianity in the United States.  Initially, religious education was offered to the enslaved peoples only grudgingly, then it was perverted as a means to pacify and deceive.  Slavery, first and foremost, was a business that upheld a way of life for slaveholders and a way of social death for slaves.  It was a system of lies:  everyone involved in that system learned, in sharply different ways, to live with slavery by learning to live with a lie.  Slavery was a moral fiction.  Yet, from this brutalized form of existence, as Jamie Phelps reminds us, erupted “black religious thoughts of freedom.”8  

Although, unlike the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist churches, the Catholic church did not split over the question of slavery, but it purchased the culture and custom of racism, and with rare exception, ignorance, benign neglect, and segregation obtained.9 The Second Plenary Council of Baltimore convened in 1866, not long after Emancipation. Archbishop Martin J. Spalding, in summoning the bishops together, identified apostolic work among the freed people as a priority on the agenda for discussion and action. He had been urged to do so by the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. Rome considered the welfare of the newly emancipated slaves to be “of the utmost necessity.” But, nothing more than an expression of regret is to be found in the pastoral letter the bishops issued at the close of the Council.10

During this period, integration was untenable even in religious congregations. The first recorded attempt prior to Emancipation to found a religious congregation for black Catholic women failed in 1824.11 But, two other endeavors were successful—the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore in 1829 and the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans in 1842.12 By the late nineteenth century, there were approximately 150 women in these two institutes.  As no seminary in the United States would accommodate him, Augustus Tolton had been forced to prepare for ordination in Rome; but, at the time of the third Afro-American Catholic Congress, seven young men had been admitted to seminary studies.13 Tolton is generally recognized as the first African American Catholic priest; but, there were three others, the Healy brothers—James Augustine, Sherwood, and Patrick.  

Boston’s Black Catholic Community continues to be steadfast in its hope and determination and vigilant as it navigated through recurring cycles of accomplishments and stumbling blocks and disappointments and joys.

Lay Leadership

From 1889 until 1894, African American Catholic laypeople organized and conducted an increasingly vigorous national movement to importune their Church to “take an active interest in what concerns, not only the spiritual but also the temporal welfare of all the people entrusted to [its] care.”14 The call for a meeting of “Colored Catholics. . . for the purpose of taking the status of the race in their relation to the church”15 was the inspiration of Daniel Rudd, the publisher and editor of the American Catholic Tribune, the only national newspaper published by and aimed at Catholics of African descent in the United States in the nineteenth century. On Tuesday, January 1, 1889, nearly 100 black delegates from thirteen states, the District of Columbia, and South America, along with invited members of the clergy and the hierarchy, assembled in Washington, D.C.

Four congresses followed this first, convening in 1890, 1892, 1893, 1894—each gathering of delegates growing in self-confidence. Women were not among delegates to the first Congress and, in his address to the assembly, Robert L. Ruffin of Boston commented on their absence.  Ruffin said, “I should liked to have seen delegates from the females, for I recognize the work which women are doing in bringing men to a higher civilization.”16  It is not clear if women were delegates to other meetings, but close inspection of a photograph of at least some of the participants attending the 1892 Congress reveals the faces of at least four laywomen and one religious sister.17

At the conclusion of each Congress, participants prepared and issued an address to the whole Catholic community. These statements tell us much about how black Catholics saw themselves and their Church. The Congresses discussed political and economic, social and religious issues of national and international scope:  civil rights at home, the abolition of slavery in Brazil, the back to Africa movement, just and equal treatment in church and society. There were repeated calls for an end to discrimination in the building trades, the rental and sale of housing, employment, and trade union and labor practices. They advocated for increased opportunities for cultural development, manual training, and education in all disciplines of learning and at all levels. Delegates appealed to their white bishops and pastors for the admission of black youngsters to Catholic high schools and, barring that, proposed the establishment of a national Catholic high school to meet their need. They called for ongoing religious instruction so that black Catholics might be well grounded in the faith and for the support of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Moreover, these laypeople exhorted themselves to greater respect for family life, and to the cultivation of thrift, frugality, honesty, industry, and virtue.18

In the ensuing years, Boston’s Black Catholic Community continued to be steadfast in its hope and determination and vigilant as it navigated through recurring cycles of accomplishments and stumbling blocks and disappointments and joys. 

St. Katharine Drexel Parish, established on Pentecost Sunday, May 15, 2005, continues to preserve the African American tradition in the Catholic Church and more specifically in the Archdiocese of Boston.  This Black Catholic Community honors its ancestors on whose shoulders it stands, and trusts in the Holy Spirit to lead and guide, as it embraces the work of building the Beloved Community.

-Dr. M. Shawn Copeland


 Davis, O.S.B. History of Black Catholics in the United States (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1990), 1.

2 Davis, O.S.B. notes that Ethiopian (Ethiopia) is used as a generic term for a black African in Greek; see his The History of Black Catholics in the United States (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1990), 4.

3 Davis, O.S.B. The History of Black Catholics in the United States (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1990), 4.

4 Frumentius is said to have visited Athanasius and requested that a bishop be sent to Ethiopia, whereupon Athanasius named him a bishop and sent him back to Ethiopia. Frumentius is honored as a saint in both the Catholic and Ethiopian churches.

5 Davis, O.S.B. The History of Black Catholics in the United States, 8.

6 Davis, O.S.B. The History of Black Catholics in the United States, 8.

7 See, Kwame Bediako, Theology and Identity: The Impact of Culture upon Christian Thought in the Second Century and Modern Africa (Oxford: Regnum Books, 1992), Thomas C. Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), Davis, The History of Black Catholics in the United States; John K. Thornton, The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684–1706 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), Teresia Hinga, African, Christian, Feminist: The Enduring Search for What Matters (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2017), Kindle Loc 107 of 5260.

8 Jamie T. Phelps, OP, ‘Providence and Histories: African American Perspectives with Emphasis on the Perspective of Black Liberation Theology,” CTSA Proceedings vol. 44 (1989): 14.   

9 During the Civil War, Catholic attitudes reflected those of the general society.  Many bishops stated bluntly that slavery was a political rather than moral issue.  The prevailing attitude, wrote William Osborne, “was a one-sided view, a white man’s perspective.  If in the white man’s eyes, the Negro was illiterate, superstitious, irresponsible and immoral, it was assumed that he was that way by nature, or by reason of his African ancestry.  No heed was given to the peculiar type of slavery in the United States, which had done so much to stunt its victims,” The Segregated Covenant: Race Relations and American Catholics (New York: Herder & Herder, 1967), 26. 

10 Osborne, Segregated Covenant, 22; see also, Edward Misch, “The American Bishops and the Negro from the Civil War to the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, 1865-1884” (Ph.D. diss., Rome, 1968); Jamie T. Phelps, “The Mission Ecclesiology of John R. Slattery:  A Study of an African-American Mission of the Catholic Church in the Nineteenth Century,” (Ph.D. diss, Catholic University of America, 1989).

11 Father Charles Nerinck started a religious congregation for women of color in Kentucky, but the insensitivity of clergy and diocesan officials forced the dismissal of the group. 

12 There is also a third black religious congregation, the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary founded in 1917 to work in Harlem, New York.  True to the meaning of catholicity, each of these congregations opened their membership to white women who have, over the years, joined them.

13 Three Catholic Afro-American Congresses [ =TCAC] (Cincinnati: The American Catholic Tribune, 1893, reprint ed., New York: Arno Press, 1978), 54-55. 

14 TCAC, 14.

15 TCAC, 13.

16 TCAC, 17.

17 TCAC 1.

18 TCAC, 92, 98-99, 107-08, 124, 133, 146-47.