Pray for the African American men and women on the path to sainthood

Immaculate Conception School in Charleston was a predominantly African-American academy operated by the diocese from 1904 to 1973. Students were taught by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an order founded by Servant of God Mother Mary Lange. (Archives)

As far as role models go, there can be no higher standard than looking to the saints for intervention and guidance.

As we celebrate Black Catholic History Month, in addition to the everyday role models in our community, there are also six men and women on the path to sainthood in the African American community.

The official process for declaring someone a saint is called canonization and is comprised of four phases: Servant of God, Venerable, Blessed and Saint.

Prior to the year 1234, the Church did not have a formal process as such. Usually martyrs and those recognized as holy were declared saints by the Church at the time of their deaths. Before the legalization of Christianity in the year 313 by Emperor Constantine, the tombs of martyrs, such as St. Peter, were marked and kept as places for homage. The anniversaries of their deaths were remembered and placed on the local Church calendar. After the legalization of Christianity, oftentimes basilicas or shrines were built over these tombs.

As time went on, the Church saw the need to tighten the canonization process to end figures of legends being honored as saints. For example, a local church in Sweden once canonized an imbibing monk who was killed in a drunken brawl: hardly evidence of martyrdom.

Therefore, in the year 1234, Pope Gregory IX established procedures to investigate the life of a candidate saint and any attributed miracles. In 1588, Pope Sixtus V entrusted the Congregation of Rites (later named the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints) to oversee the entire process. Beginning with Pope Urban VIII in 1634, various popes have revised and improved the norms and procedures for canonization.

Today, as a person is investigated for sainthood, the collected information is submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.

Once that information is accepted by the Congregation in consideration for official recognition by the Pope and the Catholic Church as a saint in Heaven, the person receives the title of Servant of God.

Further investigation is then conducted and if a candidate is declared to have lived life with heroic virtue, he may be declared Venerable.

The next step is beatification. A martyr may be beatified and declared Blessed by virtue of martyrdom itself. Otherwise, the candidate must be credited with a miracle.

After beatification, another miracle is needed for canonization and the formal declaration of sainthood.

Here is a look at the six African American Catholics currently being considered for sainthood and where they are in the process:

Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman​

A self-proclaimed, “old folks child,” Thea Bowman, who was named Bertha Elizabeth Bowman at birth, was the daughter of middle-aged parents, Dr. Theon Bowman, a physician, and Mary Esther Bowman, a teacher. She was born in 1937 and reared in Canton, Mississippi.

As a child she converted to Catholicism by the influence of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, who were her teachers and nurtured her faith.

Growing up, Thea listened and learned from the wit and wisdom of the elders. Ever precocious, she would ask questions and seek new insights on how her elders lived, thrived and survived. She learned from family members and those in the community coping mechanisms and survival skills. She was exposed to the richness of the African-American culture: the history, the stories, the music, the songs, the rituals, the prayers, the symbols, the foods, the customs and traditions.

Moreover, she was cognizant that God was indeed tPrahe God of the poor and oppressed. Her community instructed her, “If you get, give—if you learn, teach.” She developed a deep and abiding love and faith in a God who would make “a way out of no way!” Read more..

Visit the Cause for the Canonization of Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman at

Venerable Henriette Delille

Henriette Delille was born in 1812 in New Orleans, Louisiana, as a free woman of color. At 24, she experienced a religious conversion and proclaimed: “I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I want to live and die for God.”

Henriette eventually founded the Society of the Holy Family, responding to the need for outreach to the enslaved, elderly and sick; and for the care and education of the poor.

Henriette received tribute for her life’s work in these words from her obituary, “(Henriette) devoted herself untiringly for many years, without reserve, to the religious instruction of the people of New Orleans, principally of slaves.” The last line of her obituary reads, “… for the love of Jesus Christ she had become the humble and devout servant of the slaves.”

Archbishop Philip M. Hannan began the canonization process for Henriette DeLille in 1988. A special commission in Rome gave approval in 1988 after a review process. In 2004, a biography of her life, “Henriette Delille: Servant of Slaves, Witness to the Poor” by Father Cyprian Davis, OSB, was published.

As of this time, an alleged miracle attributed to Henriette is being tried in a Catholic Tribunal, and the decree of judicial validity was issued in the investigation of her life, virtues, and reputation of sanctity. Henriette was bestowed with the title of Venerable by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.

For more on her life and cause for canonization, visit

Venerable Pierre Toussaint

Pierre Toussaint was born in Haiti and brought to New York City as a slave.

Bérard, the plantation owner and Pierre’s master, allowed Pierre’s grandmother to teach her grandson how to read and write. In his early 20s, Pierre, his younger sister, his aunt, and two other house slaves accompanied their master’s son to New York City because of political unrest at home. Apprenticed to a local hairdresser, Pierre learned the trade quickly and eventually worked in the homes of rich women in New York City.

When his master died, Pierre supported his master’s widow and the other slaves himself, and was freed shortly before the widow’s death in 1807. Four years later, he married Marie Rose Juliette, whose freedom he had purchased. They later adopted Euphémie, his orphaned niece. Both preceded him in death.

Within the Catholic community, even during his lifetime, Toussaint enjoyed the reputation of an exceptionally devout and charitable person. Every day he attended the 6 a.m. Mass in St. Peter’s Church, where he was a pewholder for many years. He also raised funds to build the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral and St. Vincent de Paul Church.​

Pierre donated to various charities, generously assisting blacks and whites in need. He and his wife opened their home to orphans and educated them. The couple also nursed abandoned people who were suffering from yellow fever. Perhaps his favorite charity was St. Patrick’s Orphan Asylum, an institution that he often visited. Urged to retire and enjoy the wealth he had accumulated, Pierre responded, “I have enough for myself, but if I stop working I have not enough for others.”

In recognition of Pierre Toussaint’s virtuous life, the late Cardinal Terence Cooke introduced Pierre’s cause for canonization at the Vatican in 1968. In December 1989, the late Cardinal O’Connor had the remains of Pierre Toussaint transferred from Lower Manhattan to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in midtown Manhattan, where he is buried as the only lay person, alongside the former Cardinal-Archbishops of New York City.

On December 17, 1997, Pope John Paul II declared Pierre Toussaint as Venerable, thus placing him firmly on the road to becoming North America’s first black saint. ​

Servant of God Mother Mary Lange

Born Elizabeth Lange around 1794 in Santiago de Cuba, she lived in a primarily French speaking community.

She received an excellent education and in the early 1800s Elizabeth left Cuba and settled in the United States. She came to Baltimore as a courageous, loving, and deeply spiritual woman. There was no free public education for African American children in Maryland until 1868, so she responded to that need by opening a school in her home for the children in the city.

Providence intervened through the person of the Rev. James Hector Joubert, who was encouraged by Archbishop of Baltimore James Whitfield, and presented Elizabeth Lange with the idea to found a religious congregation for the education of African American girls.

Father Joubert would provide direction, solicit financial assistance, and encourage other “women of colour” to become members of this, the first congregation of African American women religious in the history of the Catholic Church. Elizabeth joyfully accepted Father Joubert’s idea. On July 2, 1829, Elizabeth and three other women professed their vows and became the Oblate Sisters of Providence. As foundress and first superior general of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, Elizabeth took the religious name of Mary.

Archbishop of Baltimore William Cardinal Keeler opened a formal investigation into Mother Lange’s life  and works of charity in 1991. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of the Saints approved her cause in 2004, and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore held a canonical celebration at the transfer and blessing of Mother Lange’s remains. The faithful venerated the relics before they were sealed in a reliquary and sarcophagus in the chapel’s oratory. The sarcophagus cannot be reopened without Vatican permission. Also present at the celebration were Bishop John H. Ricard, bishop emeritus of Pensacola-Tallahassee, and Xaverian Brother Reginald Cruz, vice postulator for Mother Lange’s cause for sainthood.

If the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints approves the positio being written by Brother Cruz, Mother Lange, currently considered a “Servant of God,” would be given the title “Venerable.” A confirmed miracle attributed to her intercession would then be necessary for her beatification, and a second miracle would be necessary for her canonization.

Venerable Father Augustus Tolton

Augustus Tolton was the son of slaves, Peter Paul Tolton and his wife Martha Jane, and was born on April 1, 1854.

With the outbreak of the War between the States, Peter Paul hoped to gain freedom for his family and escaped to the North, where he served in the Union Army. He was one of 180,000 blacks who were killed in the war.

His widow decided that she would see her husband’s quest for freedom realized in his children. After managing a crossing of the Mississippi River, she made her way to Illinois and settled in the small town of Quincy. When her children attempted to attend Catholic school, parents of the other school children were not happy. To avoid conflict, the School Sisters of Notre Dame decided to tutor the Tolton children privately.

As Augustus grew older he began displaying an interest in the priesthood. His parish priests, Fathers McGuirr and Richardt, encouraged the young man in this aspiration and tried without success to enroll him in several diocesan seminaries. The priests decided to begin Augustus’ education in theology themselves.

Finally, in 1878, the Franciscan College in Quincy accepted him, and two years later he was enrolled at the college of the Propaganda Fidei in Rome. After completing his courses there, Augustus Tolton was ordained on April 24, 1886. His first assignment was Saint Joseph’s church in his home town of Quincy, where he served for two years and gained enormous respect from many of the German and Irish parishioners. He was later given a parish on the south side of the city, Saint Augustine’s church, which would later become Saint Monica’s. This would be Father Tolton’s parish for life, and it also became the center from which he ministered to all the Black Catholics of Chicago.

He addressed the First Catholic Colored Congress in Washington, D.C., in 1889.

In 2015, the Cause for Canonization of Father Augustus Tolton, begun in 2010, received affirmation from the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, and Father Tolton received the distinction of Servant of God.

Servant of God Julia Greeley

Called Denver’s Angel of Charity, Julia Greeley was born into slavery in Hannibal, Missouri, between 1833 and 1848. As a young child, Julia’s right eye was destroyed by a cruel slavemaster’s whip.

Freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Julia subsequently earned her keep by serving white families in Missouri, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico — though mostly in the Denver area. Whatever she could spare, Julia ​spent assisting poor families in her neighborhood. When her resources were inadequate, she begged for food, fuel and clothing for the needy. To avoid embarrassing the people she helped, Julia did most of her charitable work under cover of night through dark alleys.

Julia entered the Catholic Church at Sacred Heart Parish in Denver in 1880. The Jesuits who ran the parish considered her the most enthusiastic promoter of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus they had ever seen. Every month she visited on foot every fire station in Denver and delivered literature of the Sacred Heart League to the firemen, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

A daily communicant, Julia had a rich devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and the Blessed Virgin and continued her prayers while working and moving about. She joined the Secular Franciscan Order in 1901 and was active in it untill her death in 1918.

To the present day, many people have requested that her cause be considered for canonization, a request which was finally granted in the Fall of 2016. As part of the Cause for Canonization, Julia’s mortal remains were transferred to Denver’s Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on ​June 7, 2017.

This article was reprinted with permission of the diocesan office of Ethnic Ministries/National Black Catholic Congress.

The portraits of Henriette DeLille, Pierre Toussaint, Mary Lange, Augustus Tolton, and Julia Greeley, were created by Anthony VanArsdale, an artist represented by Shannon Associates.