When Mary Sewell walks into St. Ann’s Church in East Baltimore she sees a towering arched ceiling and stained-glass-lined walkways with biblical scenes from throughout Jesus’ life. In all but one section, he is white, the color even more pronounced in the reflected light.
If she squints from her seat in the front left section of the pews, Sewell, who is African American, can spot where Jesus is brown, in somber depictions of when he is condemned to death and nailed to the cross.
Sewell has never felt represented by the walls in the predominantly African American church where she has practiced her Catholic faith for over 50 years.
And this is not the only way she has felt unseen by her religion.
“When it was brought to my attention that there were no African American saints, that didn’t sit well with me. I just had to voice that and try to do something to bring about change,” Sewell said.
Sewell is part of a small movement in Baltimore trying to get Black Catholics from America recognized as saints, a holy person determined by the Catholic Church as someone who lived a life of heroic virtue and is believed to be in heaven. None are African American.
Mother Teresa, one of the world’s most recognizable saints, spent much of her life as a nun who served the sick and poor. Two popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, were declared saints on the same day in 2014. John XXIII was recognized for convening the Second Vatican Council, which helped modernize the church, and John Paul II for building understanding between different faiths and countries.
Sewell and her comrades pushing for change come from all walks of life. Sewell is 67 and associate director of alumni relations in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Others are retirees, mothers, fathers, grandparents and former Catholic school students and lifelong devotees to their religion. One is a weekly columnist for the Afro American newspaper. Another a nun for 70-plus years. Many are older, in their 60s, 70s and even 90s.
The cause has become a passion project that fills their weekends and evenings. And for one, a full-time job. They’ve pushed their message across the country in virtual and in-person forums. Poems have been written to share the stories of potential saints. They send newsletters to a growing list of supporters with updates and solicitations for help with expenses.
They’ve reached out directly to the Vatican. Thousands of signed letters were sent to Pope Francis from parishioners and other supporters, asking, “If not now, when?” An online campaign has reached readers as far as Germany, Canada, West Africa and Barbados. And when they needed more help, they asked their local bishops, pastors and cardinals to use their connections. Though a few efforts are recent, others started in the ’90s.
In October, three people, including Sewell, took their pleas directly to Rome to speak with the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, which recommends candidates for sainthood to Pope Francis.
Most were attracted to the cause after having their own experiences with racism and discrimination, coming of age during times of segregation and during the civil rights movement. For some, their efforts are an extension of a life of advocacy, already helping East Baltimore neighbors with environmental injustices or saving their church from closing. One was formally assigned to the effort as part of official church work but has grown passionate about it.
Becoming a saint, or canonization, is an often long, meticulous process, which can take decades or over a century. Why a Black American hasn’t been recognized in many ways reflects the history of both America and the Catholic Church. The racism that resulted in Black Americans being treated as second-class citizens spilled over into the workings of the church. America is also younger than other countries that have a centuries-long head start on submitting names for recognition. There are over 10,000 saints recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, and fewer than a dozen are American.
Whatever the reasons, Sewell and others want that changed.
There are two main groups working on the cause in Baltimore. Sewell is part of the Social Justice Committee at St. Ann’s Church in East Baltimore. It is advocating for six candidates: Pierre Toussaint, Mother Mary Lange, Henriette Delille, Augustus Tolton, Thea Bowman and Julia Greeley. Supporters say they have lived charitable lives and made everlasting statements with their life’s work. A few even overcame enslavement. Only one is local to Baltimore, Mother Mary Lange.
A second group, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious order for African American women, is advocating for Mother Mary Lange, who helped found the convent. Cardinal William Keeler, then archbishop of Baltimore, described Lange as “a woman of courage and faith” dedicated to educating Black children, according to a decree he issued in 1991 when he opened her cause more than a century after her death. Sister Mary Alice Chineworth, the former superior general of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, told The Baltimore Sun at the time that the start of the process was “something we hardly dare dream.”
Both groups have the same goal, but different approaches. The Oblates are trusting in the canonization process outlined by the Catholic Church. The committee wants the process expedited.
Sewell was inspired to join the Social Justice Committee during the Black Lives Matter movement. She traveled to Rome with fellow committee members Ralph Moore and Delores Moore.
No one knows when a decision will be made, but the groups have one thing on their side: a more progressive pope, who recently approved Catholic blessings for same sex couples.
Pope Francis is paying attention to parts of the church that have been “shoved to the periphery or the margins,” said David Collins, a Roman Catholic priest and a history professor with Georgetown University. “That could be a reason for hope for those that are advocating for some African American things,” he added.
Who’s leading the effort
These days, it takes Sister Magdala Marie Gilbert, 93, more than an hour to get ready, with age and a muscle degenerative disease slowing her down. Wearing a traditional habit and with a firm grip on her walker, she makes her way each day through the Our Lady of Mount Providence Convent in Baltimore County. At 9 a.m., she goes to Mass and then settles into her office decorated with photos of the Obama family, Mother Mary Lange and herself over 74 years as a nun.
It is here where she writes letters, answers phone calls and shares information with curious scholars from as far away as Brazil, the Philippines, Cuba, and Costa Rica about Mother Mary Lange. The more people who know about her, the better‚ said Gilbert. She was appointed by her superior general to head the cause for the convent, and it has become her daily work.
Lange has a profound connection to Baltimore, where she immigrated from Cuba and began teaching Black children at a time when people thought them unworthy of education. She did so despite her own disadvantages: being a woman, Black and a refugee.
Lange and several other women opened an all-girls Catholic school in their convent. What is now St. Frances Academy in East Baltimore remains active, though coed, as one of the oldest African American Catholic schools in the U.S. In 1829, Lange became one of the original founders of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. A Catholic school that opened in 2021 on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard bears her name.
Gilbert and others believe Mother Mary Lange is worthy of sainthood because it’s a miracle that the order formed when it did and is still active today.
“Mother Lange had to go through racism, hatred, and she never lost her vision and you’re telling me that’s not sainthood?” Gilbert said.
Said Shannen Williams, author of “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle”: “There is absolutely no way to tell Lange’s story or the story of her order accurately or honestly without confronting the Catholic Church’s mostly unreconciled histories of colonialism, slavery, and segregation.”
The canonization process
Saint Ulrich of Augsburg was one of the first people to be canonized, in the year 993. The process involves several stages, each more complex than the last.
A person has to be dead for at least five years before a local bishop can open the official cause for canonization and then be declared a Servant of God. Next, the person’s life is investigated thoroughly before being declared Venerable.
Mother Mary Lange was declared Venerable on June 22, 2023.
Pierre Toussaint was declared venerable in 1996, Henriette Delille in 2010 and the Rev. Augustus Tolton since 2019. But that doesn’t guarantee sainthood.
Miracles must also be proven, probably the toughest part of the process, and scrutinized carefully by experts.
“In the 21st century, miracles are generally healings from some illness or sickness for which there is no immediate scientific explanation,” said Collins. They are thought to occur because someone prayed to a person believed to have a direct connection to God. Mother Teresa, for instance, was believed to cure a woman in India with a tumor. Gilbert said several miracles were submitted on behalf of Mother Mary Lange, including healing a woman from sepsis.
After the first miracle is proven, the person is called Blessed, and after the second miracle is proven, sainthood is declared.
It’s a “labyrinthine, bureaucratic process,” said Collins, which involves historians, theologists and archivists, and can be costly.
Fast-tracking is possible, as in the case of John XXIII, who was declared a saint even though only one miracle was attributed to him. Mother Teresa was dead less than five years when her canonization process began. But fast can still mean years; Pope Francis declared her a saint in 2016, nearly 19 years after her death.
“It depends on sort of popularity, visibility, and to a certain extent is there something about the virtue that they bring to the table that makes it more attractive to the global church to move the canonization forward more expeditiously,” Collins said.
Expediting the process might be a bit tricky with the “Saintly Six” because they are at different points of the process. Julia Greeley and Thea Bowman, the only candidate born in the 20th century, are Servants of God and the rest are Venerable.
“The process takes years, and it’s not dependent on a group petitioning Rome for the cause of canonization. It involves prayer. It involves miracles that have to be proven in order for that person to become a saint,” said Adrienne Curry, director of the Office of Black Ministries for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Curry’s supportive of the committee, but believes every candidate should go through the process individually because they have unique contributions.
Collins added that the absence of African American saints reflects what’s gone on in the United States much more than Rome because buy-in from a local bishop is the first, crucial step in the process.
Racism in the Catholic Church
Members of the Social Justice Committee remember how their race colored their experiences as Catholics. Ralph Moore said his generation witnessed firsthand the prejudice and discrimination within the church.
Moore, a lifelong Catholic educated in the religion’s schools, joined the committee over 20 years ago when churches were being closed. Talk of St. Ann’s closing concerned Moore because the church was an anchor in the neighborhood. He helped launch a penny drive, collecting 3 million pennies in five-gallon jugs to fix the roof and make other repairs. The longtime pacifist and activist who helped create a scholarship fund for young Black men and co-runs a summer camp, considers the recognition of a Black American saint as a form of atonement from the Catholic Church.
It’s a right to a wrong he doesn’t intend to stop chasing.
“I believe in the African proverb that says, ‘When you pray, move your feet,’ ” he said.
The committee has traveled the country for two years pushing their cause. Ralph Moore, Delores Moore and Sewell talk nearly every day, he said, and the full committee meets mostly monthly.
Before each Sunday Mass, parishioners at St. Ann’s recite prayers to God for all six candidates. Their portraits are on easels in the front left-hand corner of the church even though Ralph Moore said they did not have permission to put them up.
“Through all that we’ve endured, there are no Black Catholic saints from the U.S. Somebody ought to be embarrassed about that,” Moore said.
As a child, he remembers his mother telling him to sit in the back of certain churches, and a white pastor once blocked Black parishioners from touching the same holy water as white worshippers. In some churches, Black Catholics had to wait to receive their Communion and sacraments after white Catholics.
“We saw ourselves in an institution that wasn’t connected to the realities, and I still feel that in some ways,” Moore said.
In the 1970s, he and other young Catholics took over an annual May procession to walk around the neighborhoods near St. Pius in Harlem Park and advocated against the Vietnam War. One night inside the church, they painted a life-size depiction of Jesus and the Blessed Mother in the color mahogany. They also hung up pictures of Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.
Throughout adulthood, Moore drifted from the Catholic Church to the Baptists, then stopped going at all before being drawn back years later.
Sewell started going to St. Ann’s in the fourth grade and attended the church’s school, which no longer exists. Her family lived blocks away, and her mother was an avid parishioner. She still attends there in remembrance of her mother.
Remembering her childhood, Sewell, 67, said she was taught to be socially conscious by the older folks, which is why she joined the Social Justice Committee at Ralph Moore’s request.
In 2019, Baltimore Archbishop William Lori released a pastoral reflection acknowledging the Catholic Church’s involvement in slavery as it “allowed the mantle of the society in which they lived to supersede the fundamental tenet of their faith.” Segregation prevailed in Catholic schools, religious orders and even hospitals and orphanages.
“We could say in general, it’s taken the Catholic Church too long to recognize, value, lift up and appreciate, and really applaud and proclaim the contributions of Black Catholics in this country,” said Bruce Lewandowski, a vicar for Baltimore.
The road to Rome
Some in her circle worried about Delores Moore, 74, making the trip to Rome. Her voice has grown weaker, and she walks less steadily than she once did. But she hadn’t worked so hard the past two years to be left behind. And, with a bachelor’s degree in gerontology, she believes older people should stay active.
During St. Ann’s 150 anniversary in October, Archbishop Lori blessed Ralph Moore, Sewell and Delores Moore on their pilgrimage to Rome, only steps away from the portraits of the candidates they are rooting for.
The three didn’t go to Rome empty-handed. With them, they took hundreds of signed, blessed letters supporting the Saintly Six.
On the day of the trip, Moore lugged large suitcases into his living room. The trio munched on anchovy and chicken pizza, as they waited for their ride to the airport and discussed how surreal it was that they were actually going to Rome.
“What do you say when you’ve waited two years?” said Delores Moore, a Kennedy Krieger retiree.
The driver helped them put their things in the car, including Delores’s cherry red electric scooter. “That’s a big rascal, isn’t it?” she said.
Delores’ granddaughter pulled up with her passport, which she had accidentally left at home. It was stuffed with prayers for the “Saintly Six.” Moore’s wife, Dana Moore, snapped pictures before they found their seats in the van. She cried as they zoomed off.
“Everybody doubted them. Everybody said it would never happen. … So many people told him to forget about it,” Dana Moore said.
Sewell said she had to pinch herself several times once they landed. It seemed unreal. The three prayed outside the entryway to the meeting in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City. They brought a handout of their committee accomplishments and descriptions of the candidates. Although the Dicastery undersecretary, the Bogusław Stanisław Turek, spoke Italian, Sewell and Delores Moore said the meeting felt welcoming and Catholic officials seemed receptive to what they were saying through a translator.
“We took the spirit of St. Ann Church with us,” said Ralph Moore.
He remembers shelves of colorful books in the meeting filled with summarized documents for those up for canonization. He told the group that they came for their saints and several smiled, he said.
They left with no answers about if or when an African American would become a saint. But it still felt satisfying.
The Vatican provided no insight, noting in a statement that the “Dicastery, in accordance with its long-standing practice, does not share this type of information.”
Ralph Moore isn’t sure the process will speed up, but the committee is going to keep working, he said. Delores thinks their presence made an impression. Sewell is most optimistic and thinks their work will all pay off. Maybe even this year.
For now, they wait.