McNamara’s Blog Celebrates Black History Month

McNamara’s Blog Celebrates Black History Month February 1, 2019

In 1854, James Healy became the first Black priest ordained in the United States, but racism forced him to keep his background a secret. He served as Bishop of Portland, Maine, from 1875 to 1900.

Although November is officially Black Catholic History Month, I didn’t return to Patheos until its end. So McNamara’s Blog will highlight the African American Catholic experience during Black History Month of 2019. As I’ve shared here before, this is a topic which has interested me for a long time.

Growing up in 1980’s Queens, I assumed Catholics were either Irish, Italian, German, or Polish. Any African Americans I did know belonged to Protestant churches. Furthermore, I never saw a Black person in a Catholic church. Not until my senior year at Cathedral Prep Seminary did I have any classmates of African descent.

After college, I spent some time in the Jesuit novitiate, where I met my good friend Nick Creary, who today is a respected scholar of African and African American history. Nick hadn’t just studied the Black Catholic experience; he lived it. He helped me understand that the Church was more than just what I had experienced. It was truly universal— for everyone.

  In early 1992, I read Father Cyprian Davis’s History of Black Catholics in the United States. This book was an eye-opener for me (I underlined just about everything.) When I began studying American Catholic history, I was  mainly interested in learning more about my own Irish Catholic background. I wanted to discover my roots. But Father Davis showed me that other people had roots, too, and that they belonged to the Church just as much as the Irish or the Germans did.

Today there are three million African American Catholics, about four percent of all American Catholics. Along the East Coast and throughout the South, nearly eight hundred parishes identify as predominantly African American. Priests, deacons, seminarians and religious presently number a little over 1,200. Fifteen bishops are African American. Those are the numbers.

But the story of a people is more than just numbers. African American Catholics kept their faith alive in the face of discrimination and racism, and passed it on to the next generation. They showed other Catholics that it’s a Church for all people. This month at McNamara’s Blog, then, lay women and men, bishops, priests, and religious from the Black community are all featured here. Their stories, better than any statistic, bring alive the true meaning of the word Catholic: “universal.”

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