FLATLANDS — There are six African-Americans currently on the path to sainthood in the Catholic Church, and 18-year-old Jaden Ellis is excited by the prospect of their canonization.
“The saints are a mirror to us. It will be great to look in that mirror and see a piece of you reflected,” said Ellis, who, like the six would-be saints, is black.
The Diocese of Brooklyn’s Black Catholic History Month Mass, held Saturday, Nov. 19, at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Flatlands, was dedicated to the six — Pierre Toussaint, Mother Mary Lange, Henriette DeLille, Julia Greeley, Augustus Tolton, and Sister Thea Bowman — and the service provided a rallying point for supporters for their canonization.
For many at Saturday’s Mass, elevating the six candidates to sainthood would be a major point of pride for Black Catholics who sometimes feel that the contributions their people have made to the church over the centuries have been unjustly ignored.
Jemma Faltine-Christian, a parishioner of St. Matthew Parish in Crown Heights, said sainthood would increase the amount of respect accorded to those being canonized as well as Black Catholics in general. “It would be the church declaring that our history is important,” she said.
“There are a lot of saints. It would be nice to see more of us included,” said Faltine-Christian’s friend and fellow St. Matthew parishioner Patricia Brown.
Venus Sepmer, who traveled from Uniondale, New York, to Brooklyn to attend the Mass, lamented the fact that the stories of the six candidates are not more well known.
“The Church needs to do a better job of getting the word out about their accomplishments,” she said. “Education is the key.”
Toussaint, a one-time slave, was an entrepreneur who helped finance the construction of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in what is now Soho. Mother Mary Lange founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first African American religious congregation. Henriette DeLille was the founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family.
Julia Greeley was a former slave known as the “Angel of Charity” in Denver for her many efforts to help families in need. Augustus Tolton was the first Black Catholic priest in America. Sister Thea Bowman was a nun, teacher, and musician who pushed for more inclusion in the Catholic Church.
“We come to celebrate what some believe does not exist — the rich history of Black Catholics,” Father Kareem Smith said during the Mass, which was organized by the Office of the Vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns for Diocese of Brooklyn and the Cultural Diversity Apostolate of the Archdiocese of New York. “We come here this afternoon to celebrate our identity.”
Father Smith, administrator of St. Michael the Archangel Church in the Bronx, was invited to celebrate the Mass by Father Alonzo Cox, vicar for the vicariate.
Black Catholic History Month is a relatively new celebration in the church’s history. It was established in 1990 at the behest of the National Black Clergy Caucus, which met at Fordham University in July of that year and voted to dedicate an entire month to mark the contributions of Black Catholics.
November was selected as the month in which to mark Black Catholic History Month because it coincides with other notable dates of importance to Black Catholics, including the feast day of St. Martin De Porres, the patron saint of social justice.