Posted by: Fr Chris | March 1, 2017

Black Catholic 3: First Priest, Heroic Women

I missed getting these posted due to illness. Here you go:


Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton  is the first African American priest. Father Augustus was the son of slaves, brought to freedom by his mother determined to see her children live free, in 1862. Because he had no white ancestry, every seminary that he applied to refused to accept him despite his academic excellence and support from white priests, and he had to go to Rome. Pope Leo XIII ordered both his ordination and that he return home to Illinois to serve as a parish priest, despite the hostility of the American bishops. His success was so great that whites attended his parish to hear his sermons and go to Confession. He was too successful: the jealousy of a white pastor forced him to leave the city, a move that would lead to his death.

He had to transfer to Chicago, where he was again very successful in preaching, confessing, and leading the spiritual lives of black and white Catholics. Unfortunately, he had poor health, and during a severe heat wave, he died at the young age of 43. His Cause was opened in 2011. Read more at and his biography, From Slave To Priest, by Sr. Caroline Hemesath, a book I can personally recommend!


Julia Greeley, Apostle of the Sacred Heart. The cause of this former slave was opened in Denver in 2016, after years of collecting memories and data. In her lifetime, Julia was called “saintly” and the Angel of Charity. She was a special friend to the firemen of Denver and to all of the poor, of all races and backgrounds, and would go around the city with a little red wagon which she used to collect items for the poor and to carry leaflets on devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She was born in slavery in Missouri sometime before 1855. She lost her right eye when her owner was severely whipping her mother: no medical care was given to young Julia.

After she moved to Denver in 1880 to become the housekeeper for the governor (whose wife she knew from Missouri), she  became a Catholic, and attended daily Mass at the Jesuit parish of the Sacred Heart. She never married, but cared for many children over the years, and begged for the needs of the poor, even though she was poorer than they, delivering to them at night from her wagon. She died on the feast of the Sacred Heart, and was buried in the habit of the Third Order of Saint Francis, the lay group to which she belonged. At her funeral in 1918, the church was jammed with people from all classes,   in thanksgiving for her apostolate to the poor. The Franciscan Capuchin Fathers have long promoted her cause. Read more at

Venerable Mary Elizabeth Lange founded the first African-American Community of Sisters, the Oblate Sisters of Providence. The granddaughter of a plantation owner, she was born in Haiti in 1784. The family fled the slave revolts to Cuba, and Elizabeth was given an excellent French education. She emigrated to Baltimore, where she settled among the Haitian French-speaking refugees; at this time there were more free Blacks than slaves in Baltimore, but no schools.  She and a friend ran the first African-American-run school for free children of color in Maryland for ten years, when the Archbishop intervened and asked her to found a community of Sisters for Black women. No white Order would accept “colored” women (a prejudice which endured into the 1950s), and so she established The Sisters of Providence for Black Catholic women with vocations. The new community flourished, caring for Black orphans, opening schools, nursing the sick, teaching trades, conducting religious education for all ages, including adults, and helping the poor. She persevered and was considered a pioneer for her broad range of ministry.  By the time of her death in 1882, she was honored as a living saint by all. Investigation of her Cause began in 1991, and in 2004 she was given the title Venerable. The Sisters of Providence continue to run schools today and  homes for the aged. They have conducted successful evangelization among Black Americans for 187 years, and now serve Hispanic immigrants also.




Venerable Henriette Marie DeLille  Born free, Mother Henriette is the foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Family.  Her father was French-Italian, her mother French, Spanish and one-quarter African. Under the racial laws, she was considered a Colored Creole, and because her parents could not be legally married in Louisiana (or most other states), she was also illegitimate. We can easily forget how strict the racial laws were in this country! Under the segregationist laws, Henriette  received a good education courtesy of her wealthy parents, but was destined to live as a common-law wife of some rich white man who would have a white family separately. She rebelled against this, as a Catholic (though the Church tolerated these things then!) and out of human dignity. She became a teacher for children of color, and in 1842 founded her Sisters with support of the Vatican, but strong local opposition. The Sisters took in orphans, founded schools, and opened a nursing home for elderly people of color, and still flourish today. She died in 1850. Her Cause was opened in New Orleans in 1988. A miracle of healing has been accepted by the Church as valid, and it is expected that she will be declared a Blessed in New Orleans (beatification).




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