Blacks and the Faith

Archeological discoveries suggest that there was an African presence in South America as far back as 13,000 BC to 600 AD. However, European history indicates that the slave trade to the “New World” began shortly after Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola in 1492. Europeans then began to ship commercial items to West Africa for sale and trade for African slaves.

These Africans, our ancestors, were then forcibly transported first to South America and the Caribbean where they were traded for raw materials: coffee, cotton, sugar, and tobacco. The passage across the Atlantic Ocean took months and the ships were overcrowded with our ancestors to maximize the slave trade. It is estimated that around 12 million Africans were brought over and that 15% (about 2 million) of them died en route from starvation and ill-treatment. Others died from diseases such as scurvy, smallpox, measles, and syphilis. The male slaves were chained together in the lower part of the ship while the few women were allowed to move about freely to satisfy the needs of the crew.

History records that black Catholics arrived in the United States with the first groups of Catholics came in the 16th century. St. Augustine, Florida, founded in 1565 by Catholic Spanish-speaking settlers, included both blacks and whites. According to Fr. Cyprian Davis, the baptismal register of the time contained names of infants who were described as black or mulatto.

The Cathedral of Santa María la Menor in Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola is the oldest catholic church in the Americas. The church, dedicated to St. Mary of the Incarnation, was opened in 1541. The first Catholic Church, San Miguel Mission, in the United States was opened by the Spanish-speaking people in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1619. Noteworthy is that there is documentation that suggests that the first group of Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619 before the pilgrims on the Mayflower. Africans were also beings dropped off at Barbados, St. Kitts, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint Lucia, Dominica, and Central and South America. Servant of God Mother Mary Elizabeth Clarisse Lange founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first US-based religious order of women of color, in Baltimore in 1829. The oldest Catholic Church, created for and by African Americans, in the United States is St. Augustine in the Treme section of New Orleans that was opened in 1841. Haitian-American Catholics in Baltimore established the first Black Catholic lay group in the United States in 1843. The Society of the Holy Family was a 200-member devotional group, dedicated to prayer, faith formation, scripture, and singing. In 1860 the first Catholic parish was established in Basseterre, on the island of St. Kitts.  St. Francis Xavier was opened in 1863 for the Black Catholic Baltimore community. The first black Catholic church in New York City was St. Benedict the Moor at 210 Bleecker Street which was opened in 1883 and then moved to West 53rd Street in Hell’s Kitchen. Venerable Fr. Augustus Tolton celebrated the first mass after his ordination in 1889 at St. Benedict the Moor. Servant of God Bernard Quinn opened St. Peter Claver in 1917 for the blacks in the Diocese of Brooklyn.