Catholic Black History Month
Saint Josephine Bakhita
Feast Day: February 8
Mother Josephine Bakhita was born in Sudan in 1869 and died in Schio (Vicenza) in 1947.
This African flower, who knew the anguish of kidnapping and slavery, bloomed marvelously in Italy, in response to God's grace, with the Daughters of Charity.
In Schio (Vicenza), where she spent many years of her life, everyone still calls her “our Black Mother”. The process for the cause of Canonization began 12 years after her death and on December 1st, 1978 the Church proclaimed the Decree of the heroic practice of all virtues. Divine Providence which “cares for the flowers of the fields and the birds of the air”, guided the Sudanese slave through innumerable and unspeakable sufferings to human freedom and to the freedom of faith and finally to the consecration of her whole life to God for the coming of his Kingdom.
Bakhita was not the name she received from her parents at birth. The fright and the terrible experiences she went through made her forget the name she was given by her parents. Bakhita, which means “fortunate”, was the name given to her by her kidnappers. Sold and resold in the markets of El Obeid and of Khartoum, she experienced the humiliations and sufferings of slavery, both physical and moral.
In the Capital of Sudan, Bakhita was bought by an Italian Consul, Callisto Legnani . For the first time since the day she was kidnapped, she realized with pleasant surprise, that no one used the lash when giving her orders; instead, she was treated in a loving and cordial way. In the Consul's residence, Bakhita experienced peace, warmth and moments of joy, even though veiled by nostalgia for her own family, whom, perhaps, she had lost forever.
Political situations forced the Consul to leave for Italy. Bakhita asked and obtained permission to go with him and with a friend of his, a certain Mr. Augusto Michieli.
On arrival in Genoa, Mr. Legnani, pressured by the request of Mr. Michieli's wife, consented to leave Bakhita with them. She followed the new “family”, which settled in Zianigo (near Mirano Veneto). When their daughter Mimmina was born, Bakhita became her babysitter and friend. The acquisition and management of a big hotel in Suakin, on the Red Sea, forced Mrs. Michieli to move to Suakin to help her husband. Meanwhile, on the advice of their administrator, Illuminato Checchini, Mimmina and Bakhita were entrusted to the Canossian Sisters of the Institute of the Catechumens in Venice. It was there that Bakhita came to know about God whom “she had experienced in her heart without knowing who He was” ever since she was a child. “Seeing the sun, the moon and the stars, I said to myself: Who could be the Master of these beautiful things? And I felt a great desire to see him, to know Him and to pay Him homage...”
Daughter of God
After several months in the catechumenate, Bakhita received the sacraments of Christian initiation and was given the new name, Josephine. It was January 9, 1890. She did not know how to express her joy that day. Her big and expressive eyes sparkled, revealing deep emotions. From then on, she was often seen kissing the baptismal font and saying: “Here, I became a daughter of God!” With each new day, she became more aware of who this God was, whom she now knew and loved, who had led her to Him through mysterious ways, holding her by the hand.
When Mrs. Michieli returned from Africa to take back her daughter and Bakhita, the latter, with unusual firmness and courage, expressed her desire to remain with the Canossian Sisters and to serve that God who had shown her so many proofs of His love. The young African, who by then had come of age, enjoyed the freedom of choice which the Italian law ensured.
Daughter of St. Magdalene
Bakhita remained in the catechumenate where she experienced the call to be a religious, and to give herself to the Lord in the Institute of St. Magdalene of Canossa.
On December 8, 1896 Josephine Bakhita was consecrated forever to God whom she called with the sweet expression “the Master!” For another 50 years, this humble Daughter of Charity, a true witness of the love of God, lived in the community in Schio, engaged in various services: cooking, sewing, embroidery and attending to the door. When she was on duty at the door, she would gently lay her hands on the heads of the children who daily attended the Canossian schools and caress them. Her amiable voice, which had the inflection and rhythm of the music of her country, was pleasing to the little ones, comforting to the poor and suffering and encouraging for those who knocked at the door of the Institute.
Witness of love
Her humility, her simplicity and her constant smile won the hearts of all the citizens. Her sisters in the community esteemed her for her inalterable sweet nature, her exquisite goodness and her deep desire to make the Lord known. “Be good, love the Lord, pray for those who do not know Him. What a great grace it is to know God!”
As she grew older she experienced long, painful years of sickness. Mother Bakhita continued to witness to faith, goodness and Christian hope. To those who visited her and asked how she was, she would respond with a smile: “As the Master desires.”
During her agony, she re-lived the terrible days of her slavery and more then once she begged the nurse who assisted her: “Please, loosen the chains... they are heavy!” It was Mary Most Holy who freed her from all pain. Her last words were: “Our Lady! Our Lady!”, and her final smile testified to her encounter with the Mother of the Lord. Mother Bakhita breathed her last on February 8, 1947 at the Canossian Convent, Schio, surrounded by the Sisters. A crowd quickly gathered at the Convent to have a last look at their «Mother Moretta» and to ask for her protection from heaven. The fame of her sanctity has spread to all the continents and many are those who receive graces through her intercession. (From the Vatican website)
St. Charles Lwanga & Companions
Feastday: June 3
St. Charles and many other martyrs for the faith died between November 15, 1885 – January 27, 1887 in Namugongo, Uganda. St. Charles and his companions were beatified in 1920 and canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1964.
In 1879 Catholicism began spreading in Uganda when the White Fathers, a congregation of priests founded by Cardinal Lavigerie were peacefully received by King Mutesa of Uganda.
The priests soon began preparing catechumens for baptism and before long a number of the young pages in the king’s court had become Catholics.
However, on the death of Mutesa, his son Mwanga, a corrupt man who ritually engaged in pedophilic practices with the younger pages, took the throne.
When King Mwanga had a visiting Anglican Bishop murdered, his chief page, Joseph Mukasa, a Catholic who went to great length to protect the younger boys from the king’s lust, denounced the king’s actions and was beheaded on November 15, 1885.
The 25 year old Charles Lwanga, a man wholly dedicated to the Christian instruction of the younger boys, became the chief page, and just as forcibly protected them from the kings advances.
On the night of the martyrdom of Joseph Mukasa, realizing that their own lives were in danger, Lwanga and some of the other pages went to the White Fathers to receive baptism. Another 100 catechumens were baptized in the week following Joseph Mukasa’s death.
The following May, King Mwanga learned that one of the boys was learning catechism. He was furious and ordered all the pages to be questioned to separate the Christians from the others. The Christians, 15 in all, between the ages of 13 and 25, stepped forward. The King asked them if they were willing to keep their faith. They answered in unison, “Until death!”
They were bound together and taken on a two day walk to Namugongo where they were to be burned at the stake. On the way, Matthias Kalemba, one of the eldest boys, exclaimed, “God will rescue me. But you will not see how he does it, because he will take my soul and leave you only my body.” They executioners cut him to pieces and left him to die alone on the road.
When they reached the site where they were to be burned, they were kept tied together for seven days while the executioners prepared the wood for the fire.
On June 3, 1886, the Feast of the Ascension, Charles Lwanga was separated from the others and burned at the stake. The executioners slowly burnt his feet until only the charred remained. Still alive, they promised him that they would let him go if he renounced his faith. He refused saying, “You are burning me, but it is as if you are pouring water over my body.” He then continued to pray silently as they set him on fire. Just before the flames reached his heart, he looked up and said in a loud voice, “Katonda! – My God!,” and died.
His companions were all burned together the same day all the while praying and singing hymns until they died.
There were 22 protomartyrs in all. The last of the protomartyrs, a young man named John Mary, was beheaded by King Mwanga on January 27, 1887.
The persecutions spread during the reign of Mwanga, with 100 Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, being tortured and killed.
St. Moses the Black
Feast Day: August 28
Patronage: Africa, forgiveness, nonviolence
Moses the Black, sometimes called the Ethiopian, was a slave of a government official in Egypt who dismissed him for theft and suspected murder. He became the leader of a gang of bandits who roamed the Nile Valley spreading terror and violence. He was a large, imposing figure. On one occasion, a barking dog prevented Moses from carrying out a robbery, so he swore vengeance on the owner. Weapons in his mouth, Moses swam the river toward the owner's hut. The owner, again alerted, hid, and the frustrated Moses took some of his sheep to slaughter. Attempting to hide from local authorities, he took shelter with some monks in a colony in the desert of Scete, near Alexandria. The dedication of their lives, as well as their peace and contentment, influenced Moses deeply. He soon gave up his old way of life and joined the monastic community at Scete.
He had a rather difficult time adjusting to regular monastic discipline. His flair for adventure remained with him. Attacked by a group of robbers in his desert cell, Moses fought back, overpowered the intruders, and dragged them to the chapel where the other monks were at prayer. He told the brothers that he didn't think it Christian to hurt the robbers and asked what he should do with them. The overwhelmed robbers repented, were converted, and themselves joined the community.
Moses was zealous in all he did, but became discouraged when he concluded he was not perfect enough. Early one morning, St. Isidore, abbot of the community, took Brother Moses to the roof and together they watched the first rays of dawn come over the horizon. Isidore told Moses, "Only slowly do the rays of the sun drive away the night and usher in a new day, and thus, only slowly does one become a perfect contemplative."
Moses proved to be effective as a prophetic spiritual leader. The abbot ordered the brothers to fast during a particular week. Some brothers came to Moses, and he prepared a meal for them. Neighboring monks reported to the abbot that Moses was breaking the fast. When they came to confront Moses, they changed their minds, saying "You did not keep a human commandment, but it was so that you might keep the divine commandment of hospitality." Some see in this account one of the earliest allusions to the Paschal fast, which developed at this time.
When a brother committed a fault and Moses was invited to a meeting to discuss an appropriate penance, Moses refused to attend. When he was again called to the meeting, Moses took a leaking jug filled with water and carried it on his shoulder. Another version of the story has him carrying a basket filled with sand. When he arrived at the meeting place, the others asked why he was carrying the jug. He replied, "My sins run out behind me and I do not see them, but today I am coming to judge the errors of another." On hearing this, the assembled brothers forgave the erring monk.
Moses became the spiritual leader of a colony of hermits in the desert. At some time, he had been ordained priest. At about age 75, about the year 407, word came that a group of renegades planned to attack the colony. The brothers wanted to defend themselves, but Moses forbade it. He told them to retreat, rather than take up weapons. He and seven others remained behind and greeted the invaders with open arms, but all eight were martyred by the bandits. A modern interpretation honors St. Moses the Black as an apostle of non-violence.
The lives of St. Moses the Black and St. Norbert, contain some interesting parallels. Both lived rather dissolute lives in their younger years. Both had conversion experiences in which they heard and heeded the call of God. Both were leaders in their respective religious communities. Both are known as men of peace, having spent much of their ministry calling people to reconciliation and forgiveness by word and example.
Venerable Pierre Toussaint
Feast Day: May 28
No matter who you are or where you are in life, you can love God and love his people. Our saints let us see this clearly, because they come from all walks of life and from all over the world. One such saint is the Venerable Pierre Toussaint, who began his life as a slave.
Pierre was born around 1766 in Haiti, which is about one-third of an island in the Caribbean Sea. At this time, Haiti was one of the wealthiest places on earth. It was owned by the French, who grew rich from the sugar cane grown on the island.
In Haiti, enslaved people from Africa were brought to work the land after disease killed off most of the island’s native peoples. Pierre was a descendent of these African slaves.
In 1793, the slaves in Haiti were getting more and more dissatisfied, and it was clear that war would come soon. The Bérard family, with Pierre as one of their slaves, moved to New York, and soon after they began what they had hoped would be a short stay, rebellion broke out back home. They heard the news that their plantation had been burned to the ground, and Monsieur Bérard died.
Madame Bérard was left without anything and anyone to help her. Except, of course, Pierre.
In New York, Pierre had been training in what you might think of as an unusual job: he’d been learning how to be a hairdresser. In those days, hairdressing was about a lot more than haircuts. If you can remember pictures you’ve seen of ladies during that time, you’ll recall that hairstyles, especially for wealthy women, were very fancy, with hair stacked high, and lots of curls and ribbons hanging from the mountain of hair on their heads. It took skill to put a look like that together. It took time, and it took money. It seems as if Pierre was in just the right profession, after all.
From the time that Monsieur Bérard died, it was Pierre Toussaint who supported the family. He worked for sixteen hours a day, going from home to home, fixing the wealthy women’s hair. The money he earned was enough to support the household until Madame Bérard died. When she died, she gave Pierre his freedom, and now, free of other obligations, Pierre was finally able to marry Juliette, the young woman he loved.
Of course, being a good hairdresser isn’t what makes Pierre Toussaint a saint. During his long life, he was a strong witness to the love of God to all he met. He was completely dedicated to living the virtue of charity.
Pierre spoke of God’s love and the beauty of the Catholic faith to his customers and others, most of whom weren’t Catholic and many of whom didn’t really like Catholics very much. He brought sick people into his home and cared for them. He went into neighborhoods devastated by fevers and plague, places where everyone else was too frightened to go, and brought help to the sick who had often been abandoned by their own families.
Mother Elizabeth Seton—another saint who lived in New York during this time—started an orphanage in 1817. Pierre Toussaint provided a great deal of the support for the orphanage. He gave of his own money and constantly collected donations from his customers.
Pierre and Juliette also were important in the founding of the first New York Catholic school for black children. And they supported a group of black women who were trying to form their own religious order of sisters.
When Pierre Toussaint died in 1853 at the age of eighty-seven, he was well-known in New York City for his love and generosity. The newspapers even carried articles about all he had done for the poor people of New York and how deep his love for God was. In a time when black people were treated badly, were bought and sold as property, and were seen as inferior to white people, it says a great deal about Pierre Toussaint’s holiness and his importance in New York that the newspapers would even mention that he had died, much less offer him great praise!
Yes, the world is a big, busy place full of great need, and we are so small. All of us—grown-ups, too—wonder sometimes whether we can make a difference when we’re just one person and the world is full of so many people who need God’s love. The story of Venerable Pierre Toussaint teaches us to not wonder about such things and to not be discouraged by how the world sees us.
He was born a slave in the world’s eyes, but through the virtue of charity that he shared with all he met, he brought the warmth of God’s love into countless lives. No matter who we are or where we are, no matter how small the world tries to make us feel, we can always and everywhere practice the virtue of charity and share God’s love with everyone in our life.
From Loyola Press
Venerable Father Augustus Tolton
Father Augustus Tolton knew what it meant to be abandoned and unwanted. Born the son of slaves, Tolton went on to be ordained the first African-American priest from the United States. But the path was not easy. He had to overcome many obstacles, including rejection from seminaries because of his race.
His family made a harrowing escape into Northern territory, settling in Quincy, Illinois. Father Peter McGirr, pastor of St. Peter’s Church in that city, took the young Augustus under his wing, granting him entrance to his parish school against the wishes of many in the parish. As a student at Qunicy College, Franciscan priests assisted Tolton as he sought the priesthood despite finding many doors closed in his face.
With heroic determination to fulfill the will of God, Tolton pressed on toward ordination despite the fact that no American seminary would accept him. Eventually ordained in 1886, after attending the Pontifical Urban College in Rome, Tolton expected to serve as a missionary to the African continent. However, he was assigned back to the United States — the Roman cardinal who ordained him noted, “America has been called the most enlightened nation; we will see if it deserves that honor. If America has never seen a black priest, it has to see one now.”
Father Tolton’s arrival in his hometown — about 20 years after the end of the Civil War — was met with racial prejudice by laity and clergy alike. The bishop’s delegate even told him white people should not attend his parish. Father Tolton persevered in humility and obedience and was eventually granted the opportunity to minister in Chicago by Archbishop Patrick A. Feehan in 1889.
In the Windy City, Father Tolton provided priestly care to a growing black Catholic community, which formed into St. Monica Church. He poured out his life in service to his people — in care for the poor and in a church building project, among other things. This strenuous work undoubtedly was a contributing factor to his death at the age of 43. After returning to Chicago by train from a retreat, Father Tolton collapsed in the street on a hot summer day and died on July 9, 1897.
Tolton’s canonization has been progressing since it was inaugurated in 2010 by the late-Cardinal Francis E. George, OMI, of Chicago. Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago — vice postulator of Tolton’s canonization cause — defines his legacy: “His was a fundamental and pervasive struggle to be recognized, welcomed and accepted. He rises wonderfully as a Christ-figure, never uttering a harsh word about anyone or anything while being thrown one disappointment after another. He persevered among us when there was no logical reason to do so.”
Another step forward toward Tolton’s canonization was taken in December, when his remains were exhumed at his grave in his adopted hometown of Quincy, Illinois.