During the month of February the United States, takes time to reflect on people who impacted the course of the country throughout the centuries by celebrating Black History Month. It recalls the efforts of blacks in our country that fought for their God-given dignity, rights and inspiring others to make positive changes in the world. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglas, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and for sport lovers Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Jerry Rice, Michael Jordan and who can forget the Williams sisters. The United States now has seen its first black president who held the office for eight years, former President Barack Obama. These people certainly have impacted the history of the United States and the world at large. In celebrating Black History Month, it is good to reflect on blacks who also impacted the Catholic Church.
St. Martin de Porres is a fine example to reflect on. Martin was born as an illegitimate son to a Spanish man and to a free slave woman who was possibly of African or Native American descent in Lima, Peru on December 9, 1579. At an early age Martin's father abandoned him and his family leaving Martin to experience deep poverty. Despite the poverty, Martin was able to attend primary school where he would be for two years until he was taken in by a barber and surgeon. There he learned the art of hair styling and the medical arts. As he grew older, Martin began to experience the setbacks of Peru's laws and racism within the culture. For he was of a mixed race so many laws prevented Martin from participating in several things. One law at the time prohibited Africans and Indians from becoming full members of religious orders. At the age of fifteen he entered the Dominicans of the Holy Rosary Priory in Lima. The order accepted him, but only as a donado; that is a volunteer of the community who was assigned to menial tasks and lived with the community. He would later seek admission into the Dominican Convent of the Rosary where he first started as a servant boy, but later became the church officer which would allow him to oversee the monetary distribution to poor while keeping his menial tasks. After eight years, however; the Prior Juan de Lorenzana of the Holy Rosary Convent decided to disregard the law and allowed Martin to take vows as a member of Third Order Dominicans.
While this didn't stop the racial taunts and mocking that Martin received from people both inside and outside the community, he continued loving everyone. At the age of 24, Martin was assigned to the infirmary, where he spent most of his life. Regardless, of who came into the infirmary Martin showed God's great mercy for the sick whether they were rich, poor, enemy or friend. God also blessed him with many gifts such as; vast spiritual knowledge, bi-location, instant cures and a superb relationship with animals. In January 1639, Martin became seriously ill with agonizing pain, chills and fevers that would last for a nearly the entire year until his death in November 6, 1639. Today, Martin is patron of people of mixed races, barbers, and public health care workers.
There is also, St. Bakhita (Josephine Margaret) who was born in 1869 in the village of Olgossa in the Darfar region of Sudan. She grew up in the Daju tribe of the area, with her loving and fairly prosperous family. As a young girl Bakhita was kidnapped by Arab slave traders and was sold several times to brutal masters. In 1883 she was sold to Callisto Legani, who was returning to Italy and made her the nanny of his child. However, Legani had business dealings in Sudan that caused him to leave Italy, so he left Bakhita in the custody of the Canossian Sisters. During her stay with the sisters she came to know God and the Catholic faith. When Legani returned from Sudan he went to retrieve Bakhita but, she refused to go with him. Legani went to the Italian courts in order to get her back, until they discovered slavery had been outlawed therefore she was rightfully a free women. She stayed with the Canossian Sisters and received Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation on January 9, 1890 by Giusseppe Sarto who later became Pope Pius X. Bakhita want on to take her final vows with the Canossian Daughters of Charity on December 8, 1896. From there she spent her time telling her story to others sister preparing for missionary work in Africa. St. Bakhita is now the patron of Sudan.
Another person of influence is Fr. Augustus Tolton. The first black in the United States to be ordained a priest. Having been born close to the time of the Civil War, Augustus' parents were slaves of the Elliot Family. His father Peter Paul Tolton hoped to gain freedom for his family, so he himself was able to escape to the North and was able to enroll in the Union Army. His wife Martha Jane escaped later by crossing the Mississippi River into the small town of Quincy, Illinois. Though the family had physical freedom, they still suffered racism just as they had in the South. However, this didn't stop the Tolton family from pursuing their dreams and a priestly vocation. Though people had no issue with blacks attending Mass, many where not open to them going along with whites to school, for unsegregated schools did not yet exist. Despite the fact the Tolton family was not welcomed in the Catholic schools, they were able to receive private tutoring from the School Sisters of Notre Dame. In the mean time to help support his family Augustus worked in a tobacco company and cleaned the local church.
When the time came for Augustus to finally try to enter into the seminary, not a single American seminary accepted him but Augustus kept trying. But with the help of Fr. McGuirr and Fr. Richardt he was able to study theology until finally in 1878 the Franciscan College in Quincy accepted him. Augustus later studied at the Propaganda Fidei in Rome where he became fluent in Italian, Greek, Latin and was ordained a priest on April 24, 1886. Although he wished to be a missionary to Africa his mission was back in the United States in his home town Quincy, Illinois at St. Joseph's Catholic Church where he continued to face racial prejudices. The Archbishop of Chicago later asked him to come to his diocese to serve at a small parish in Chicago where he knew the community would welcome and honor him. Fr. Tolton welcomed the opportunity and was received with joy at his new parish St. Augustine's Church (later to be called St. Monica's Church) . Though welcoming, the parish was poor and had to raise money to provide Fr. Tolton a room to live in. Despite financial hardships, Fr. Tolton pressed on his parish ministry to help the small parish grow. With a little help of a holy religious mother, St. Kathrine Drexel (who was dedicated to educating young blacks) Fr. Tolton was able to start a school for black Catholics near the parish.
Fr. Tolton preached the universal call to holiness and tried to help people see the prejudices that prevented them from loving everyone in Christ. Sadly one day as Fr. Tolton was making his way to a yearly retreat on the south side of Chicago in July of 1897 he died from heat stroke. Although only 43, Fr. Tolton gave an example to the American Catholic Church in how one can overcome hatred and prejudice when trying to follow Christ. In 2010, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago has pressed forward in submitting the cause of canonization of Fr. Augustus Tolton.
The Church also remembers on March 7, the feast day of St. Felicity, an African slave who was imprisoned with several other companions that included St. Perpetua when early Christians faced persecution in Africa. Felicity suffered greatly in her imprisonment for she was with child. She suffered rough handling from prison guards and heat exhaustion. She herself would not retaliate and was martyred in the arena around 330 A.D.
Even a former Egyptian slave known as Moses helped show the peaceful way of Christ when facing opposition. This is not the same Moses that led God's people out of Egypt. This Moses was a former slave to an Egyptian government official and was accused of theft and murder. Having escaped imprisonment, Moses became a leader of a gang of thieves that tormented nearby villages. He was considered to be an intimidating man because of his massive size and wicked temper. He even became furious at a man who he tried to rob because he became fearful of his barking dog. One day, Moses went to avenge himself by trying to kill the man, but realized that the local authorities were already in pursuit of him. So he went into hiding in Scetes near Alexandria. While there, he came across a group of desert monks and was fascinated by their life style. Encouraged by their peaceful way of life, Moses left his old way of living and came into the Christian faith. Though he struggled to overcome his violent temper the brothers helped him to discipline himself in monastic life. Moses went from violent to non-violent in no time. He was ordained a priest and chosen to be the spiritual father of a group of hermits in the Western Desert. Around 405 A.D at the age of 75 Moses, and his brothers were attacked by Berbers in their monastery. Though the brothers wanted to defend themselves from the attackers, Moses refused to take up arms and told them to retreat if they wished. He and seven brothers refused and were killed by the attackers on July 1.
Since the beginning of the church up to today, the Catholic Church has seen a great influence in love and holiness from her children of color. During the month of February we should take time to insure that we ourselves do not hold any prejudice ideas or racism in our hearts, so that we may reflect the love of Christ.