Maryland is sometimes referred to as the “cradle of Catholicism” in the United States. But it has not always gently rocked its Black believers. For many of them, being Catholic has often meant keeping the faith despite racism within the confines of the Church.
Archbishop William Lori, leader of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, has acknowledged that in a series of pastoral statements in recent years, spurred in large measure by the unrest that followed Freddie Gray’s death from an injury suffered in police custody. He established a Journey for Racial Justice Coordinating Council last year to oversee efforts at reconciliation and healing.
What the Church is formally acknowledging is the resounding dissonance between affirmation of the dignity and worth of all God’s children on the one hand and, on the other, the lived experiences of Black Catholics through the years, whether as priests and nuns or ordinary folks in St. Ann Church at East 22nd Street and Greenmount Avenue.
St. Ann was once a predominantly white parish, but, as Ralph Moore says, “they were scared out of the city,” first at the prospects of integration signaled by the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and later by the racial unrest that became widespread by the time that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
When Blacks were in the minority at St. Ann and other parishes, they endured restrictions on where they could sit (the back pews) and when they could take Communion (after whites had done so). It was not until 1974 that the first Black priest was ordained in the archdiocese: Donald Sterling, who had grown up in St. Ann. He’s now the pastor at New All Saints Church on Liberty Heights Avenue.
The social justice committee at St. Ann has tackled many issues, starting with a prolonged fight with the Maryland Transit Administration over its placement of a bus yard in a residential area, where it spewed fumes day and night, purportedly causing respiratory ailments among those who lived nearby.
The latest crusade is to promote the causes of six Black people to become saints in the Catholic Church, which to date has recognized no Black American saints. “It’s a matter of justice,” says Delores Moore, who has been part of the group since the early days of the MTA fight. (She is not related to Ralph Moore.)
Some of the six were enslaved; others are from the Jim Crow era, and all were marginalized by Church hierarchy. “We feel at this point that these people really are already saints,” Delores Moore says. “I think when some of these archbishops get to heaven, they’re going to find out who’s really there. We know there are many more African American people who have done saintly things for the Church in spite of what the Church has done to them.”
Rome has been stingy in bestowing sainthood among Americans. There are 11, four of whom were born in this country. Compare that to hundreds of Italians, who obviously have the home-field advantage when it comes to being blessed and highly favored. In 2013, Pope Francis made saints of 813 of the faithful who were beheaded by the Ottomans in 1480 when they refused to convert to Islam. They are known collectively as the Martyrs of Otranto. Efforts to canonize them began in 1539. As the Americans have been hearing, the process can be long.
With efforts underway in various parts of the country, the causes of six Black women and men are now before the powers in Rome: three have “servant of God” status and three have advanced to the “veneration” stage. To put a halt to the unseemly point-of-pride competition among cities, dioceses and religious guilds to see who can claim the first Black saint, there’s a movement afoot to persuade Pope Francis to canonize all six.
In an All Saints Day service at St. Ann last November, their portraits were carried by prominent Catholics in a procession to the altar. There, the portraits and a batch of letters addressed to the pope were blessed. The letters, some 3,000 of which have been collected so far, read, in part: “While there are no U.S. African American saints, there are 11 white Americans who have been canonized. We know there is a process, but it is not working for Black American Catholics and supporters. The process is reaping unfair, uneven results ... ”
Baltimore’s Catholics understandably support the cause of Mother Lange, a Haiti-born immigrant from Cuba who arrived in Baltimore in the early 1800s and, despite opposition, taught enslaved Black children to read. In 1828, she established the St. Frances Academy for Colored Girls, which is known today as the coed St. Frances Academy. Working with a priest, she established the first Black order of nuns in the U.S., the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Her story has only recently become widely known, though she was posthumously inducted into Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 1991. The Mother Lange Catholic School opened on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 2021.
The campaign for her sainthood began in 2019, led by the Mother Lange Guild and the Oblate Sisters. In 2006, she was declared a “servant of God,” a first step. In 2020, documentation was formally presented to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome. And, as Sister Magdala Marie Gilbert, the 91-year-old nun who heads the guild, says: “Now we’re waiting on a miracle.” They’ve submitted a few possible miracles, but those were not accepted. A miracle is required to move to the next step in the process: veneration. And that’s a couple of steps removed from the ultimate goal: canonization.
Sister Magdala, who will mark her 74th anniversary in the order in November, told me, “Just the mere fact that she was a Black woman here 32 years before the Emancipation Proclamation and she had to go through all this racist struggle to do what she had to do and people were telling her she couldn’t do this and she couldn’t do the other, but she had faith in God and God brought her through all this, and after 193 years this community is still here. I think that’s a miracle in itself.” Sister Magdala paused, then added with a chuckle: “But nobody asked me.”
It is fitting that the national effort to join the causes is being led by the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana, an HBCU and a bastion of Catholicism since its founding in 1915 by Katherine Drexel, an heiress who devoted her life to the well-being of Native Americans and Black people. She was canonized as St. Katherine by Pope John Paul II in 2000 as a patron saint for racial justice and philanthropy. Four years ago, Xavier President Reynolds Verret announced at a conference of Black Catholics that the institute there would serve as “hosts and administrators of the joint effort.”
At the time there were five. The sixth was an old friend of Sister Magdala, Sister Thea Bowman, a scholar, evangelist and singer, who died in 1990 at age 52. In 2018, the Church designated her a “servant of God.” Two years ago, in a season of racial soul-searching spawned by the death of George Floyd, Loyola University Maryland renamed Flannery O’Connor Hall the Thea Bowman Hall.
Auxiliary Bishop Bruce Lewandowski, who heads the racial justice coordinating council for the archdiocese, thinks all six deserve to be considered for sainthood, but he fears that lumping them together will remove some of the luster of their individual experiences and the place faith had in their lives.
“As someone said to me the other day, ‘I don’t want them to be canonized with an asterisk by their name.’ There is a concern that folks would be canonized and not recognized for their individual contributions.”
He, like other archdiocesan leaders, is all-in for the canonization of Mother Lange, who “endured extreme racism, horrible things, and persevered.” Among the many indignities, he noted, “an archbishop here told her to go back to cleaning houses, go back to being a maid and a nanny. Here was a woman of high education and great accomplishments and a man in authority in the Church told her to go home and forget about founding a religious order. But she found backing and support in the Black Catholic community and beyond and was able to continue her efforts.”
Ralph Moore is more than a bit exasperated. The Church is best at what he calls “silence, secrecy and slowness.” Still, the seven-member social justice team is placing great faith in Pope Francis. “Now is the time with this pope. I think better this pope than anybody else,” Delores Moore says.
While they are making plans to take their case directly to Rome next year, they are continuing the letter writing campaign — something that Bishop Lewandowski supports. “The letter writing campaign has heightened their profile in a very helpful way so that people can pray to them for their intercession and can learn from their heroic virtue, as we call it — their great contributions.”
As this Protestant sees it, the campaign comes down to this: You need more believers to know about the six lives of the proposed saints. Then they will be more likely to offer prayers for the proposed saints to intercede in their earthly challenges. And with all those prayers going up, some miracles acceptable to the Church will rain down.
Or, all the noise just might persuade Pope Francis to take the Mother Teresa fast-track approach rather than the Martyrs of Otranto several-centuries approach. In fact, he should revisit the notion of “miracle.”
Maybe he should ask Sister Magdala.
E.R. Shipp is a veteran journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. She is also currently an associate professor at Morgan State University.
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