A painting depicts Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first Catholic order of African-American nuns, who work largely in the Baltimore area. (CNS photo/courtesy of the Catholic Review)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Black Catholics have made their mark on the Catholic Church in its more than 2,000-year history and the U.S. church’s observance of Black Catholic History Month each November calls to mind those contributions, an official of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said as the special observance for 2013 was coming to a close.

The month celebrates the lives and contributions of black saints through the centuries and the ministry of leading African-American laypeople and religious, some of whom are candidates for sainthood.

It is important for black Catholics to remember that “many well-known people came before us,” said Donna Toliver Grimes, assistant director of African American affairs for the USCCB’s Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church.

“We have made our mark and have been part of the church and have also enhanced it,” she told Catholic News Service Nov. 22.

In 1990 the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States designated November as Black Catholic History Month to celebrate the history and heritage of black Catholics.

The month was chosen, distinct from the U.S. civil observance Black History Month in February, and because two important dates fall in November: St. Augustine of Hippo’s birthday, Nov. 13, and St. Martin de Porres’ feast day, Nov. 3. In the church’s calendar, over course the month also begins with a time of prayer for all saints and souls.


This year the USCCB’s Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church highlighted on its website (http://tinyurl.com/mlxz8ql) four African-American Catholics on the sainthood path: Pierre Toussaint, Oblate Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, Mother Henriette Delille and Father Augustus Tolton.

— Toussaint (1766-1853) was a freed Haitian slave who became the city’s most popular hairdresser. He helped finance New York City’s first cathedral, St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, and he is the only layperson to be buried in the crypt at the “new” St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He was declared venerable in 1997.

“Venerable” is the church’s official recognition of a sainthood candidate’s heroic virtues. In general, in the sainthood process, a first miracle credited to the intercession of the sainthood candidate and recognized by the Vatican is needed for beatification and a second such miracle is needed for canonization.

— Mother Lange (1784-1882) was a Caribbean-born foundress of Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore in 1929, the oldest U.S. order of women religious of African descent and dedicated to educating and evangelizing African-Americans for the most part. Her sainthood cause was opened in 1991.

— Mother Delille (1813-1862) was born in New Orleans and founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1842 there. Her sainthood cause was opened in 1988 and was approved unanimously by U.S. bishops in 1997. She was declared venerable in 2010.

— Father Tolton (1854-1897) was a former slave and the first U.S.-born African-American priest and founder of the first black Catholic church in Chicago. His sainthood cause was opened in 2010.

Grimes stressed that these men and women are not just examples of faith for people today but they also “all have interesting stories.”