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Black saints who were “firsts”


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Meg Hunter-Kilmer - published on 02/06/21

The contribution of Black saints goes back to the very beginning of the universal Church.

During February, Americans celebrate Black History Month by turning attention to the countless contributions that Africans and people of African descent have made to our world. There aren’t yet any African American saints (though six causes are currently open), but Black saints and saints-to-be have been instrumental in the Church from its very birth on Calvary.

First African saint: St. Simon of Cyrene

St. Simon of Cyrene is known to almost all Christians from his encounter with Jesus on the road to Calvary, when he was made to carry Jesus’ cross alongside him. What fewer people know is that Simon’s hometown of Cyrene was in Libya. Like the Egyptians and Libyans baptized on the day of Pentecost, and like St. Lucius of Cyrene (one of the earliest bishops in the Church, listed in Acts 13:1 as a leader in the Church at Antioch), we can’t be certain as to St. Simon of Cyrene’s race; North Africa has long been a region of great ethnic diversity, particularly at the time of the Roman occupation. But however dark their skin, these earliest Christians were Africans and stand as a reminder that the Church was thriving in Africa while England and Ireland were still untouched by the Gospel.

First royal saint: St. Ephigenia of Ethiopia

St. Ephigenia of Ethiopia (1st century) was the daughter of the king of Ethiopia and is said to have been converted by St. Matthew the Evangelist. When Matthew evangelized Ethiopia (converting the king and many of his people), Ephigenia became a consecrated virgin. After the death of Ephigenia’s father, his successor Hirtacus sought her hand. Matthew explained to Hirtacus that Ephigenia was unavailable and was slain at the altar for protecting her. Hirtacus was then stricken with leprosy and took his own life, leaving Princess Ephigenia untouched.

First African pope: St. Victor I

Pope St. Victor I (d. 199) was a North African man who established Latin (the language used in Roman Africa) rather than Greek (used in Rome) as the language of the Roman Catholic Church. He called the first Roman synod, worked to universalize the date of Easter, and developed the authority of the papacy over the entire Church.

First Black person officially canonized: St. Benedict the Moor

St. Benedict the Moor (1526-1589) was born to enslaved African parents but freed at birth. He joined some Franciscan-inspired hermits, whom he led for 10 years, then entered the Franciscan order, where he eventually served as superior and as novice master despite being illiterate. Though there were many Black saints before St. Benedict the Moor, the canonization process didn’t begin until the 11th century, making him the first Black person canonized.

First Black saint from the Americas: St. Martin de Porres

St. Martin de Porres (1579-1639) was born out of wedlock to a white father and Black mother. He trained as a barber (which included learning medicine) and tried to enter the Dominican order but was denied because it was illegal for a Black man to make vows. He entered as a volunteer instead and was so holy (in spite of the racist treatment he endured at the hands of the other brothers) that his superior decided to defy the law and allow Martin to become a lay brother. He worked in the kitchen and the infirmary for the rest of his life, a healer and a miracle-worker who bilocated all over the world.

First African woman to write in a European language: Venerable Teresa Chikaba

Ven. Teresa Chikaba (1676-1748) was, like St. Josephine Bakhita, kidnapped and sold into slavery as a child (though Chikaba was from Ghana). Though relatively well-treated in the home of her noble Spanish mistress, Chikaba remained an enslaved person. She endured the dehumanizing nature of slavery as well as the racist taunts and beatings at the hands of other servants in the household. Freed after the death of her mistress, Chikaba was turned away by one convent after another, despite her enormous dowry and the patronage of her former master the marquis. When she was finally allowed to enter a Dominican convent, she was made to live as a servant rather than a full-fledged nun, even after she became a mystic and a miracle-worker. A poet, Chikaba is the first Black woman known to have written literature in a European language.

First person to found a successful religious order for African American women: Servant of God Mary Lange

Mother Mary Lange (d. 1882) was born to a wealthy Haitian family and raised in Cuba. She came to Baltimore as a young adult, where she experienced racism in a way she never had before, including at the hands of Catholics who repeatedly tried to disband the Black religious order she founded. Mother Lange persisted and her order continues to serve today.

First openly Black American priest: Venerable Augustus Tolton

Ven. Augustus Tolton (1854-1897) was born into slavery in Missouri but escaped with his family. When he later tried to enter seminary, he was rejected because of his race. A bishop who recognized his virtues sent him to Rome to study since no American seminary would take him. Though the white-passing Healy brothers had been ordained when Tolton was a child, Tolton became the first openly Black American priest. After ordination, he was sent back to Illinois, where he served amidst great persecution for the 10 years of his priesthood until he died of heatstroke at 43.

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