Priest-scholar shares history of black Catholics in U.S.

Sister Barbara Moore, CSJ, and Father Cyprian Davis, OSB, talk about their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement during a brown bag discussion Feb. 24 at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. Fr. Davis gave a lecture that night on the history of black Catholics in the U.S.

By Barb Arland-Fye

Historian Father Cyprian Davis, OSB, told a rapt audience at St. Ambrose University in Davenport how he – a Benedictine monk — stepped outside his comfort zone to march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.

At the time, he was teaching at St. Meinrad School of Theology in Indiana, where he continues to teach today as a professor of church history.

“You could feel the electricity,” he told students, faculty and others who had gathered for a brown bag discussion Feb. 24 at the university’s Rogalski Center. He was in Davenport to deliver the annual Chair of Catholic Studies Lecture that night.

Joining him for the informal lunchtime discussion was Sister Barbara Moore, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the same religious community that St. Ambrose University President Sister Joan Lescinski belongs to. Sr. Moore also marched in Selma and is prominently featured in the PBS Documentary, “The Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change.”


She told the St. Ambrose group, “My experience in Selma was a real metanoia” (a transformative change of heart). While being trained in nonviolent strategies for the march, she was told that if she were to be arrested and sent to jail, as an African American, she would have been separated from the white Sisters. She also remembers someone asking, “What happens if you can’t just not fight back?” Their instructor said, “Then you don’t march.” Through the grace of God, Sr. Moore said, she marched and returned home to Kansas City, Mo., safe and unharmed.

During a question and answer exchange, Sr. Moore was asked what she would have done if her superiors had forbade her participation in the march. She explained that she bases her decision-making process on a formed conscience and accepts the consequences for her behavior. Fr. Davis said he was grateful that his abbot gave him permission to go to the march.

When students asked what their role ought to be in issues advocacy, both speakers encouraged them to become actively involved in an issue that they feel particularly concerned about.

While a history maker in his own right, Fr. Davis focuses his energies on scholarship and is a leader of historical studies of the African-American Catholic Church in the United States. His lecture at St. Ambrose addressed “Migration of African-American Catholics in the United States.”

Bishop Martin Amos gave the invocation, asking God to “open our hearts as well as our minds that we may hear the story of the African-American Catholic experience and come to appreciate the rich tapestry of all cultures and traditions that make up our church and society.”

Father Jeffry Belger, a priest of the diocese and a former student of Fr. Davis, introduced the professor by saying he taught in a way that brought history to life.

In fact, that’s what Fr. Davis did in sharing the stories of “individuals who helped make a black Catholic community in what is now the United States.”

• He introduced the audience to Francisco Menendez, born in the early 1700s in West Africa and who emerged in 1733 as captain of the black slaves who had escaped from the Carolinas. He petitioned the King of Spain to free his men who had bravely fought against the British on behalf of Spain. His persistence eventually paid off. Later, he became leader of the first all-black town in the history of North America and military leader of a militia formed along with the Yamasee warriors in Florida. He faced many other challenges in his life, but, as Fr. Davis observed: “Tough, determined, courageous, and shrewd, Menendez, former slave and seasoned soldier, was more than a survivor; he was a leader in the Spanish world of the Caribbean who overcame his status and his origins.”

• Henriette Delille, a New Orleans native born around 1812, inspired Davis for her compassion and dedication toward others in need. She and Juliette Gaudin and Josephine Charles nursed sick and aged slaves, educated girls of color, catechized slave children and stood as sponsors for infants and instructed teenagers and adults. They witnessed the marriages of the slaves and the poor and organized charitable activities with the help of laymen and women of color. “They began as pious women and evolved into nuns, the Sisters of the Holy Family,” Fr. Davis said. He noted that the cause for beatification for Sisters Delille and Lange has been introduced in Rome. “They are reminders that among the gifts of black Catholics there are the saints, known and unknown in our midst.”

• Harriet Thompson’s story impressed Davis because she had the courage to write to Pope Pius IX in 1853 about discrimination against black Catholic children in Catholic and public schools. She feared that “the name of Catholic amongst the black race will in a few years fall away.” Her letter, signed by 27 others, got the attention of the Vatican office responsible for missions and missionaries throughout the world. “The fact is that officials in the Curia began to raise questions from American bishops about the evangelization or the lack of evangelization of African American Catholics,” Fr. Davis said.

• He also shared the stories of the first black priests in the United States: Father Augustus Tolton, born in 1854 in Missouri to black Catholic slaves, and the three Healy siblings — Fathers James, Patrick and Sherwood — who were born to a plantation owner and his slave. James became a bishop; Fr. Patrick became the first president of Georgetown University in 1874, but was not recognized as black, Fr. Davis noted.

• And finally, Fr. Davis told the story of Mary Lou Williams, a convert to Catholicism who was a gifted musician. She worked and composed with Duke Ellington and was a virtuoso of the jazz piano, composing over 400 works. “She became an ardent Catholic, looking to find and help so many of the black jazz musicians who were drug addicts,” Fr. Davis said. “A woman of faith and a woman of prayer, she was a leader in the arts and an evangelist in the world of music and the performing arts.”

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