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Grassroots effort calls on pope to canonize six Black sainthood candidates

Sister Rita Michelle Proctor, superior general of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, claps during the opening procession of the All Souls Mass Nov. 1, 2021 at St. Ann Catholic Church in Baltimore honoring six African Americans who’ve made significant contributions to the U.S. Catholic church. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

When Sister Michelle Proctor was a young child, she was taught by the Oblate Sisters of Providence from grades three to 10.

The sisters’ hospitality and trust in Divine Providence inspired her to become a religious sister in their Baltimore-based order.

After 53 years of love and service for the Lord in the Oblate community, the current superior general of her religious community was honored to participate at St. Ann Church in Baltimore in a Nov. 1 procession of six candidates for canonization.

She held a portrait of the community’s foundress – and one of those sainthood candidates: Mother Mary Lange, who has the title “Servant of God.”

Five other members of the African American Catholic community processed to the altar holding portraits of the other prominent Black Catholics they hope will be canonized.

They are: Sister Thea Bowman, the first African American member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, and Julia Greeley, known as the city of Denver’s “Angel of Charity” – both have the title Servant of God – as well as Mother Henriette Delille, founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family, Father Augustus Tolton and Pierre Toussaint. The latter three have the title “Venerable.”

The title “Servant of God” is given by the church to a sainthood candidate when his or her cause is officially opened.

The first step in the process after that is the declaration of a person’s heroic virtues, after which the church bestows the title “Venerable.” The second step is beatification, after which he or she is called “Blessed.” The third step is canonization.

In general, for beatification one miracle needs to be accepted by the church as having occurred through the intercession of the prospective saint and a second such verified miracle is needed for canonization.

Following the procession, Auxiliary Bishop Bruce Lewandowski, C.Ss.R., urban vicar, celebrated a Mass for the Solemnity of All Saints. Nearly 200 people were present.

Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop Bruce A. Lewandowski, C.Ss.R., bows before images of six African Americans who are under consideration for sainthood during the opening of the All Souls Day Mass Nov. 1, 2021 at St. Ann Church in Baltimore. A letter-writing campaign is underway asking Pope Francis to expedite their canonization. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

The Mass was organized by a national campaign made of parishioners from the Baltimore pastorate of St. Ann, St. Francis Xavier and St. Wenceslaus, as well as longtime members of the social justice committee at St. Ann. The purpose was to create awareness and educate the American people about the stories of these six candidates for sainthood. Members of the campaign are collecting signatures in a letter written to Pope Francis asking him to expedite the canonization of the six candidates.

“While there are no U.S. African American saints, there are 11 white Americans who have been canonized,” the letter to the pope says. “We know there is a process, but it is not working for Black American Catholics and supporters. The process is reaping unfair, uneven results, especially when you realize that the six Black saints have been waiting 714 years totally if you add up the times since each died.”

Toussaint died 168 years ago, and a few of the others have been deceased for more than a century. Sister Thea is the most contemporary, having died in 1990.

The letter asked the pope to canonize the six candidates “immediately.”

“If not now, when?” it said. “If not you, who?”

Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop Bruce A. Lewandowski, C.Ss.R., blesses some 400 letters being sent to Pope Francis asking for the expedited canonization of six African Americans who’ve made significant contributions to the U.S. Catholic church Nov. 1, 2021 at St. Ann Church in Baltimore. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

Delores Moore, one of the leaders of the national campaign, a member of the social justice committee and a parishioner of St. Ann, said the campaign started when parishioners serving the African-American community realized only a few people knew about the lives of these African-American holy men and women, who despite their struggles with systemic racism, remained loyal to God.

Father Donald Sterling, the first African-American priest ordained in the Archdiocese of Baltimore and pastor of New All Saints in Liberty Heights, carried the portrait of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, first African-American diocesan priest in the United States.  

“Besides being historical, it is humbling to think that in all these years I am the first African-American priest in the Archdiocese of Baltimore,” Father Sterling said. “It is a humbling call on God’s part.”

Many present knew Sister Thea Bowman, including Father Sterling and Therese Wilson Favors, a long time Catholic educator and former director of the archdiocesan Office of Black Catholic Ministries, who carried the portrait of her friend and co-worker.

Wilhelmena Braswell, a parishioner of St. Ann, met Sister Thea in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in downtown Baltimore and said “her presence would light up the room.”

Parishioners from around the Archdiocese of Baltimore attend All Souls Day Mass celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Bruce  A. Lewandowski, C.Ss.R., Nov. 1, 2021 at St. Ann Church in Baltimore. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

Bishop Lewandowski said in the church there are saints for every community and every person, but not in the case of the African American community.

He invited the congregation to share with everyone the stories of these future saints, to make sure their parishes display pictures of them and to ask for their intercession.

The bishop said it is important to have Masses to celebrate African American saints because the faithful identify with saints who “look like us, spoke our language, lived our experiences and can understand our struggles.”

Although the process of canonization can be long and tedious, Bishop Lewandowski encouraged the congregation by reminding them, “We don’t make saints; God does.”

An online petition to the pope may be found here.

Email Priscila González de Doran at pdoran@CatholicReview.org

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