Black Catholic History

Black Catholic History


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Between the years 1701 and 1726 it is estimated that 1,573 slaves

were brought into New York from the West Indies. By 1740

the city’s population had increased to about 12,000, of which

number 2,000 were Negro slaves. In May of this year a Spanish

prize-ship was among the arrivals at the port and of her crew five

Negroes, Antonio de St. Benedito, Pablo Ventura Angel, Antonio

de la Cruz, Juan de la Sylva, and Augustine Guiterez . . .



Black Catholic History

in the Archdiocese of Baltimore



Aboard the Ark and Dove, ships from England which landed in Southern Maryland, it has been reported by historians that there were 100 Catholics, two (2) priests and a servant Catholic Negro on board. This was in 1634 (Henry S. Spaulding, Catholic Carolina Maryland, 1931, p. 102.

The Afro-American reports that there were two Blacks aboard these ships. One, John Pierce from England, sometimes referred to as Joyce, and one from Barbados, Matthias de Sousa, who assisted in the rebuilding of one of the above ships as it was shipwrecked during its village. Both men were indentured servants.

yet another report from Rev. John Gillard speaks of a black man named Hannibal, a servant in the family of Leonard Calvert, who remained with he family until his death. this man, Hannibal, may have been catholic since it was customary for servants to be instructed in the faith of the family he/she served.


By 1636 more Blacks must have come into the Catholic community. There is a report that a Jesuit traveled from Newton to Blackstone Island in southern Maryland to “offer Mass for the English and Colored people.”


In 1790 there was a congregation of Blacks that attended services in the basement of St. Mary’s Seminary, Paca Street.

St. Patrick’s Church on Broadway, was built by indentured French and Blacks, and Black slaves.

The baptismal registers of St. Peter’s pro-cathedral and of the Cathedral of the Assumption (downtown Baltimore) includes records of baptisms of Black people as far back as 1707, with the baptism of an eighteen year old woman, Jeanne Antoinettee Sanite (Cyprian Davis, The History of Black Catholics in the United States)


In 1801, a father Johns Souge from Meldley’s neck, St. mary’s County, publicly spoke out against slavery and called for insurrection


That the Oblate Sisters of Providence were formed in 1829. Mr. George Hoffman gave this religious order a home at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and St. Mary’s Court. (There is a Hoffman Street in West Baltimore to this Oblate Sisters site.) The Oblate Sisters established the first institution for learning for Blacks in the United States.


The Oblate Sisters build a chapel on Richmond Street (where the fifth Regiment Armory today). This site held their Convent and Academy in 1836


In 1843 the first Black Catholic Organization was founded, with a membership of 270 people. They met in the basement of St. Ignatius Church, in what was known as Calvert Hall. St. Ignatius Church is on Calvert Street in Baltimore City.


In 1863, St. Francis Xavier Parish in East Baltimore was founded , becoming the first official Negro parish. This faith community brought a historic Universalist Church for $6,000. Father Michael O’Connor, S.J., helped to raise funds for this purchase. this church was once the site of Henry Clay’s nomination address

William A. Williams, a black man who once studied at Rome’s Urban college from 1855-1862, was active at St. Francis Xavier Parish. During the period from 1863-1865, Williams published in Baltimore a journal call The Truth Communicator, directed to freed slaves. (James Hennesey, S.J., American Catholics, pp. 144-145)


The Jenkins family assisted the Josephite fathers and brothers in establishing an orphanage for Black children during the Civil war at the corners of Hilton Street near Carlisle Avenue in the Walbrook section of Baltimore, which is the St. Cecelia’s parish

Epiphany College established by the Josephites was also located at the above site and then moved to another section of Walbrook Junction closer to Hilton-Leakin Park areas.

There was a Black Catholic Parish located in the Camden Yards section of Baltimore. This faith community, St. Monica’s, was named after the mother of St. Augustine, of African descent. father John Dorsey, the second Black Josephite priest, served as pastor of this faith community.


St. Peter Claver Church in West Baltimore was once the largest Black catholic community in the United States, organizing over 10,000 people to participate in their annual May Processions.


Ordained in 1891, Father Charles Uncles, a Baltimorean, was the first Black Josephite priest and in fact was the first Black priest ordained in the United States. (Father Augustine Tolton was the first Black priest ordained in Rome.)


The St. Benedict de Moor Center housed at St. Edward’s Parish and at one time at St. Bernardine’s parish in West Baltimore, was at one time the only center of this kind on the East Coast. The center was founded by Father Maurice J. Blackwell for the purpose of assisting African American youth, discerning a vocation.

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New York’s Pioneer Colored Catholics

By Thomas F. Meehan, KSG


When Saint Isaac Jogues, S.J., the first priest to set foot on Manhattan Island, 1643, he found two Catholics,– a young Irishman and a Portuguese woman. When did the first Catholic Negro appear? It was at an early date no doubt. There may may have been representatives of the black race among the crews of the ships of Verrazano and Gomez that visited these shores nearly a century before Hudson’s half Moon dropped anchor in what is now the Bay of New York.

The Dutch were far-sailing traders, and their voyages and the wars between Spain and the English, who followed them as rulers of New York, probably brought many Negroes to the port as part of the crews of ships which were constantly sailing in as the prizes privateers. There is no positive record of the first arrival, but such data as chronicle the local existence of Catholic Negroes detail also persecution and the martyrdom of one for his Faith.

Between the years 1701 and 1726 it is estimated that 1,573 slaves were brought into New York from the West Indies. By 1740 the city’s population had increased to about 12,000, of which number 2,000 were Negro slaves. In May of this year a Spanish prize-ship was among the arrivals at the port and of her crew five Negroes, Antonio de St. Benedito, Pablo Ventura Angel, Antonio de la Cruz, Juan de la Sylva, and Augustine Guiterez, although claiming to be free Spanish subjects, were sold into slavery by order of the Court of Admiralty.

A few months after this (April and March, 1741), the city went crazy over an alleged “Popish Plot” to burn the whole place and slaughter the people during a Negro uprising. Before the mania subsided and the community was restored to its normal conditions, four white men were hanged, eleven Negroes were burned at the stake and fifty transported. Included in this tragic sacrifice to an almost unaccountable public hysteria, were the five Spanish Negroes above mentioned. Although Peter de Lancey, Abraham Peltreau and other prominent citizens testified to their good characters, a jury found them guilty of participating in the alleged plot. Sylva was condemned to be hanged and the others to be transported to the West Indies. In the history of the “Negro Plot” compiled by Judge Daniel Horsmanden, who presided at the trials of the alleged conspiracy he thus records the fate of this Catholic Negro martyr:

Juan de Sylva, the Spanish Negro condemned for conspiracy, was this day (August 15), executed according to sentence; he was neatly dressed in a white shirt, jacket, drawers and stockings, behaved decently, prayed in Spanish, kissed a crucifix, insisting on his innocence to the last. — (The New York Conspiracy; or a History of the Negro plot at New York. new York, 1810)

In the preface of the second edition of this Horsmanden history, it is stated of public sentiment at the time: “A holy hatred of the Roman Catholic was inculcated by Church and State.”

Other testimony of the early presence of Catholic Negroes in New York is to be had from the baptismal records of old St. Peter’s, Barclay Street, the first Catholic church built in the city. Among the names registered on the opening pages of this list, these of Catholic Negroes are to be found:

Thomas Benisson (slave of Joseph Benisson), born May 2, 1784; baptized january 14, 1788. Sponsors, Louis Abraham Walsh and Barbara Feinea.

Margaret Butler (slave) born April 15, 1779 — the first convert recorded in St. Peter’s list. Her sponsor was her mistress, Mrs. Margaret Cunningham.

John Cashel, born September 2, 1789. His sponsor was Andrew Morris, one of the founders of St. Peter’s and for years among the most prominent catholic merchants in the city.

The social prominence of many of the sponsors tells how carefully the Catholics of that time looked after the spiritual welfare of their households.

After the revolution of August, 1791, broke out in Haiti and Santo Domingo, a number of the planters who had estates in those islands fled to New York with their families, bringing also some of their slaves. The most notable of these was Pierre Toussaint, the son of a slave, born in 1766 in St. Mark’s parish, Santo Domingo. He was the slave and confidential servant of a planter named John Berard. His splendid character and remarkable career mark him as the most notable colored Catholic in the records of the race in New York and the details have already been given in previous issues of the INTERRACIAL REVIEW.

The Republic of Liberia, on the west coast of Africa, originated in a scheme of the American Colonization Society to found in Africa a place to which free Negroes and persons of African descent might return from the United States. The venerable Charles Carrollton, the Catholic Signer of the Declaration of Independence, was at one time president of this Colonization Society, which sent out its first colony to Africa on February 6, 1820. A number of Catholics from Maryland and the adjoining States were among these pioneer settlers. At the request of the Congregation of propaganda, and in answer to reports received at Rome, the second Plenary Council of Baltimore undertook to provide for their spiritual needs.

During the anti-slavery agitation of the Civil War era the colored people had staunch advocates in New York in Dr. Orestes A. Brownson, the famous philosopher and publicist; the Rev. Dr. J.W. Cummings, rector of St. Stephen’s Church; the Rev. Thomas Farrel, rector of St. Joseph’s, Sixth Avenue and Washington Place, and the Rev. Richard Labor Burtsell, the last two then young priests. Many colored people lived in the vicinity of St. Joseph’s, and Father Farrell was regarded as the special and very enthusiastic champion of the race. 

He was born in the County Langford, Ireland, in 1823, and came to the United States as a boy. He was educated at Mount St. Mary’s, Emmitsburg, and ordained a priest there in 1847; the following year he was appointed chaplain at the old convent of Mount St. Vincent, then located in what is now the northeastern end of Central Park. Father Farrell died as pastor of St. Joseph’s in 1880, and by his will left $5,000 in Alabama State bonds to found a church for the colored Catholics of New York. the Rev. Dr. Burtsell, and Dr. McGlynn were named as the executors to carry out the bequest, a further stipulation being that if it was not acted upon within three years the bonds were to be turned over to the Colored Orphan Asylum.

Dr. Burtsell was at that time pastor of the Church of the Epiphany. In accordance with father Farrell’s desire he purchased the old Universalist church in Bleeker Street, and after the necessary alterations were made it was dedicated under the patronage of St. Benedict the Moor, on November 18, 1183, as New York’s first church for colored Catholics. The Rev. John E. Burke, one of his assistants in the Epiphany parish, was made the first pastor of the new congregation.

In September, 1816, the Rev. A. la Font, S.P.M., pastor of the church of St. Vincent de Paul, then in Canal Street, opened in the basement of the church, a French and English School for Colored Catholic boys and girls, with Mrs. Mary Ligneu in charge and an evening school taught by Mr. de Roulette. The fees were $3 a quarter for the day school and $1 a month for the night class. It is of interest to note that the grand parents of the LaFarge, Binsse, and other families friendly to similar causes today, were active in promoting these schools.

This is a brief outline of he pioneer colored Catholic of New York. the modern and extensive movement for education and interracial progress has followed in due time and calls for more elaborate and authoritative treatment in detail.

Source: Interracial Review, September 1936

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The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World

By Daniel Yergin

Renowned energy authority Daniel Yergin continues the riveting story begun in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Prize, in this gripping account of the quest for the energy the world needs—and the power and riches that come with it. A master story teller as well as one of the world’s great experts, Yergin proves that energy is truly the engine of global political and economic change, as well as central to the battle over climate change.  From the jammed streets of Beijing, the shores of the Caspian Sea, and the conflicts in the Mideast, to Capitol Hill and Silicon Valley, Yergin takes us inside the decisions and choices that are shaping our future. Without understanding the realities of energy examined in The Quest, we may surrender our place at the helm of history. One of our great narrative writers, Yergin tells the inside stories—of the oil market, the rise of the “petrostate,” the race to control the resources of the former Soviet empire, and the massive corporate mergers that transformed the oil landscape.  He shows how the drama of oil—the struggle for access to it, the battle for control, the insecurity of  supply, the consequences of its use, its impact on the global economy, and the geopolitics that dominate it—will continue to shape our world.  

He takes on the toughest questions—will we run out of oil, and are China and the United States destined to conflict over oil? Yergin also reveals the surprising and turbulent history of nuclear, coal, electricity, and natural gas.  He investigates the “rebirth of renewables” —biofuels and wind,  as well as solar energy, which venture capitalists are betting will be “the next big thing” for meeting the  needs of a growing world economy. He makes clear why understanding this greening landscape and its future role are crucial.

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake.

She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—


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Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin

By John D’Emilio

Bayard Rustin is one of the most important figures in the history of the American civil rights movement. Before Martin Luther King, before Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin was working to bring the cause to the forefront of America’s consciousness. A teacher to King, an international apostle of peace, and the organizer of the famous 1963 March on Washington, he brought Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence to America and helped launch the civil rights movement. Nonetheless, Rustin has been largely erased by history, in part because he was an African American homosexual. Acclaimed historian John D’Emilio tells the full and remarkable story of Rustin’s intertwined lives: his pioneering and public person and his oblique and stigmatized private self.

It was in the tumultuous 1930s that Bayard Rustin came of age, getting his first lessons in politics through the Communist Party and the unrest of the Great Depression.

A Quaker and a radical pacifist, he went to prison for refusing to serve in World War II, only to suffer a sexual scandal. His mentor, the great pacifist A. J. Muste, wrote to him, “You were capable of making the ‘mistake’ of thinking that you could be the leader in a revolution…at the same time that you were a weakling in an extreme degree and engaged in practices for which there was no justification.”

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Laying Down the Sword

Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses

By Philip Jenkins

Commands to kill, to commit ethnic cleansing, to institutionalize segregation, to hate and fear other races and religions—all are in the Bible, and all occur with a far greater frequency than in the Qur’an. But fanaticism is no more hard-wired in Christianity than it is in Islam. In Laying Down the Sword, “one of America’s best scholars of religion” (The Economist) explores how religions grow past their bloody origins, and delivers a fearless examination of the most violent verses of the Bible and an urgent call to read them anew in pursuit of a richer, more genuine faith. Christians cannot engage with neighbors and critics of other traditions—nor enjoy the deepest, most mature embodiment of their own faith—until they confront the texts of terror in their heritage. Philip Jenkins identifies the “holy amnesia” that, while allowing scriptural religions to grow and adapt, has demanded a nearly wholesale suppression of the Bible’s most aggressive passages, leaving them dangerously dormant for extremists to revive in times of conflict.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 5 January 2012




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