The First Black Catholic Congress (1889)

The first national gathering of laypeople in America was the Black Catholic Congress, held January 1-4, 1889, at St. Augustine Church in Washington, D.C. Attended by over 200 African-American delegates, the congress sought “to try and devise ways and means of bettering our condition both religiously and socially.” Subsequent congresses were held in Cincinnati (1890), Philadelphia (1892), Chicago (1893), and Baltimore (1894). The driving force behind these gatherings was Daniel Rudd (1854-1933), a journalist and former slave. In 1886 Rudd founded the American Catholic Tribune, a newspaper for African-American Catholics. At the congress, Father Augustus Tolton, the first recognized African-American priest, celebrated Mass. (There were three priests ordained before Tolton whose ancestry was not public knowledge, the Healy brothers, whom I’ll discuss in future postings.) At the congress’ end, President Grover Cleveland invited a delegation to the White House. At the fifth congress in 1894, Dr.William S. Lofton stated: “We hope to hail the day …when the American people, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the laity shall rise up in the might and stamp out the prejudice which is today destroying the life’s blood of the country.” The congresses were a coming of age moment for African-American Catholics. They resumed in 1987 and continue to this day.
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