One of my assignments as a priest of our Archdiocese was to serve as Director of the Office for Black Catholics from 2004-2011. In that ministry, I was blessed to have the leadership of Bishop Robert Maginnis. He was a man of wisdom, integrity, and compassion.
During those years, I led a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Office for Black Catholics in 2005. I asked Bishop if we could collaborate with the Philadelphia Museum of African American History to share the history of Black Catholics with the larger community. Bishop smiled at my enthusiasm and simply said, “Stephen, go for it.”
I worked with a committee of people who assembled artifacts that told the story of Black Catholics that can be traced back to 1743 when the first African American person was baptized at Old Saint Mary’s Church in Philadelphia. Black people are not new to the Catholic Church and have deep roots of faith and resilience, even when we were not welcomed.
As we celebrate Black History Month in February, we are afforded a unique opportunity to learn of the many contributions that people of African descent have made to our country and our Church. Indeed, Black History is American History.
This is why the incident of racism and mockery of Black History Month by some students of Saint Hubert Catholic High School was so egregious and caused so much pain[i]:
A friend of mine who was visiting the country of Tanzania in Africa and heard about what happened in our Archdiocese called me and was appalled at he saw on the news. Yet, by God’s grace, the very same week of the events at Saint Hubert, ground was broken for affordable housing for our seniors in honor of Father Augustus Tolton, the first recognized Black Catholic Priest in our country:
That is the good news we want to share with the world!
As an educator and pastor, I suggest that one of the ways we can begin to heal from the sin of racism is to more effectively teach the history of Black Catholics in our Archdiocese. This ought to happen in our schools, PREP Programs, and in adult faith formation programs. It is only by knowing our past that we can forge a future of hope. These are some great resources to begin the conversation:
I thank God that I had Bishop Maginnis as my boss and pray for his gentle soul.
When February ends, may Black History Month continue.
Father Thorne serves as chairperson of the Archbishop’s Commission on Racial Healing and a consultant for the Sub-Committee on African American Catholics of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is earning a doctorate in educational leadership in urban schools at Bowie State University in Maryland.
[i] Subsequent to incident referenced an investigation was conducted by the administration of Saint Hubert Catholic High School and the Office of Catholic Education. It was determined that one individual involved attend a non-Catholic High School in the City of Philadelphia. All of those involved from Saint Hubert’s were no longer enrolled at the school as of Friday, February 10, 2023.
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