Chicago’s African-American Catholics, 1890

Patrick Augustine Feehan (1829-1902) was the first Archbishop of Chicago. Born in Ireland, he was ordained in St. Louis in 1852. In 1865, he was named Bishop of Nashville, where he served for fifteen years before coming to Chicago. In October 1890, Chicago celebrated his twenty-fifth anniversary as a Bishop. Representatives from various groups in the Archdiocese gave speeches in his honor. Mr. Lincoln Charles Valle gave the following address on behalf of the African-American Catholics in the Archdiocese.

Lincoln C. Valle, as seen in the early 1890’s.

Details about Valle’s life are scare, but it’s clear that he was a leader in the Midwest’s Black Catholic community from the 1880’s through the 1920’s. He was working as a journalist in Chicago when he first attracted notice. He was also an active parishioner of St. Monica’s, Chicago’s first Black parish. By the turn of the century, he moved to Milwaukee, where he and his wife played a leading role in founding St. Benedict the Moor Church for the city’s African-Americans. He later moved back to Chicago, where he continued to write until his death. He made an effort to found a Black Catholic newspaper, The Catholic Truth, but unfortunately no copies seem to have survived.

Most Reverend Archbishop, Rev. Fathers, Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I should not describe to you my feelings if I did not at once say that I feel specially honored by the invitation which brings me before you on this occasion, and, as I enter upon the duty which the acceptance of this invitation imposes, I realize my inability to meet your expectation by treating, with fullness of learning and power, the subject upon which I am to speak.

Most Rev. Father, you have heard from different nationalities during the course of this, your Silver Jubilee, and while we, the Negro Catholics of Chicago, rejoice in your long ministerial life, we think it most fitting to present ourselves before you to-night, with a few points for your consideration. We wish to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the just and cordial treatment you have always accorded to us under your administration.

Your love for us has been genuine, pure and holy. We will ever cherish your memory in our minds and hearts. We feel, also, very grateful to you for bringing into our midst the Rev. Augustus Tolton,* our worthy brother, in race and creed, as through him the salvation of our people, in a great measure, greatly depends. We, the Negroes of the United States, owe to Father Tolton a debt of gratitude for the space that he has covered.

We have in this great city at least 27,000 Negroes; out of that number but a few are Catholics. A larger number are clear outside of any church; they have souls, and could be brought into the Catholic Church if the proper steps were taken; all we ask is, that all our Catholic friends excite that one Catholic zeal and help us in reaching our own dear neglected people.

Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897)
We propose to unite more closely together a better social union among us, in order to improve the moral, mental and social condition of our people. The struggle is still and forever going on—the struggle against error.
Never in this World’s history was there a freer field to fight the battle of God than in this city, and never yet, take them all in all, were there more generous foes to contend against? But let it be borne well in mind, the battle is a severe one, all the more so, perhaps, because the field is so open and Catholics are so free. Here in America there is nothing of the glory of martyrdom to sustain us in effort that turns defeat into victory, and by one death wins a thousand lives.
St. Monica’s Church, Chicago’s first African-American parish, was founded by Father Tolton in 1889. In 1924, it was merged with St. Elizabeth’s.
Ours is not a clash of arms and of battle, but a struggle of intellects. The Church must not only hold her own, but she must also win others. The Catholics of these United States have right at their own doors one of the greatest of social questions: Eight millions of Negro people ask to be lifted up; Catholics have it in their power to show forth in the strongest manner the social power of their faith.
Most Rev. Father, we only pray that the Negroes of these United States will soon understand that if prejudice is to remain for a season on earth there is one place where it must be unknown and that is within the sacred circle of the Catholic Church. We hope he will soon learn that the solemn dogma of the Catholic Church is the equality of all men before their God, and they should know the whole history of the Catholic Church has been a ceaseless protest against slavery, even to-day the voice of Leo** goes forth from the Vatican hoping and praying that the last blow to human slavery be dealt out by Christians amid the wilds of Africa.
The Technical School for Colored Girls, founded in Chicago in 1885. 
The question is often asked, is the Negro susceptible of education? Yes, answer the statistics. In the Southern States, in 1865, among one thousand Negroes, you could find one that knew the alphabet, whilst to-day, more than twenty per cent, of all over ten years old can read and write. This proportion is so much the more to be remarked as there are many illiterate whites in those States.
More might be said on this question, but suffice it to say that we, the Negro Catholics of Chicago, will show good examples of sobriety and charity to all men, for no sermon is as powerful as the unspoken sermon of good example preached by a model, Christian man.
In conclusion, dear Archbishop, we turn to you, and address ourselves, by wishing you to have a long life, and many years of uninterrupted happiness.
James J. McGovern, Souvenir of the Silver Jubilee in the Episcopacy of His Grace, The Most Rev. Patrick Augustine Feehan, Archbishop of Chicago (1865-1890).
*Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897) was the first priest ordained for service in the United States who was known to be African-American. Between 1854 and 1864, the Healy brothers (James, Alexander, and Patrick), whose mother was African-American, were ordained, but their racial identity was kept a secret from the public. He served in Chicago from 1889 until his death eight years later. The Archdiocese of Chicago launched his canonization cause in 2010.
**Leo XIII (1810-1903) reigned as Pope from 1878 until his death in 1903.
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