Will America Finally Get Its First Black Saints?

After centuries of whitewashing saints, the Catholic Church may be on the cusp of naming America’s first black saints.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Two decades before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, in antebellum New Orleans, a French-speaking woman of African descent named Henriette Delille founded a religious order for black women called the Sisters of the Holy Family. Now, some 175 years later, Delille is poised to become not only New Orleans’ first official saint, but also the first U.S.-born black saint.

Delille’s story is inspiring. She was born in 1812 and, as a young Creole woman, she lived with a white man in a common-law marriage permitted under the system of “placage” (an extra-legal system that circumvented the laws preventing interracial marriage). When she was 24, after the death of two young sons, she experienced a religious conversion of sorts that led her to found the Sisters of the Holy Order. Her focus was tending to the elderly, caring for the sick, and teaching slaves and free blacks whose access to education opportunities was severely limited. She was known for conducting itinerant catechism classes on the banks of the Mississippi. And all of this took place during a period in Louisiana history when taking any actions that might “disturb” the population (for instance, by educating them) was considered criminal behavior.

As Virginia Gould and Charles Nolan, editors of No Cross, No Crown: Black Nuns in Nineteenth Century New Orleans note, "That a small band of Afro-Creole women founded a religious community in the antebellum South was remarkable… Conventions of class, race, gender, and condition held implications for free women of color in New Orleans as they did nowhere else in the Deep South.” Delille’s work, in other words, is remarkable.

While she may end up being the first, Henriette is not the only US-born black candidate for sainthood. She is part of a cluster of individuals on the path to sainthood. The group includes Mary Elizabeth Lange (founder of the first African-American women religious order in the US), Augustus Tolton (the first Roman Catholic priest in the US who was publicly known to be black), and Pierre Toussaint, a former Haitian slave turned hairdresser who used his wealth to care for the poor. Like Delille, Toussaint is close to sainthood: like Delille, he currently holds the status of a “venerable.”

None of these candidates for sainthood, however, are the first black Catholic saints. One of the first followers attracted by the Apostle Philip in the book of Acts was an unnamed Ethiopian eunuch. According to later tradition, this man, known as Bachos, went on to spread the gospel in Ethiopia. By the third century of the common era, the Bishop of Carthage (modern-day Tunis) was one of the most powerful leaders in the Church. Popular martyrs Perpetua and Felicity, whose story won them fame among Christians throughout the Roman Empire, were from the same region. Perhaps most notably, Augustine, one of the most important and influential thinkers of Christian history, was born and lived most of his life in modern Algeria. Augustine is widely regarded as one of the founders of Western thought.

Yet tradition rarely celebrates these saints as African. In artwork they are often depicted as Europeans. Even our modern children’s books celebrating Perpetua portray her as a redhead in the style of Ariel from The Little Mermaid. And while there is serious conversation to be had about Augustine’s background (his mother’s name suggests that she was Berber and therefore perhaps lighter-skinner), and anthropologists might rightly question the existence of race as a trans-historical phenomenon, these kinds of arguments are rarely marshaled to argue that European saints were not white. So you have to wonder what motivates the conversation that whitewashes saints.

Whoever becomes the first US-born black saint, this is a significant moment in Church history. When US bishops voted in 1997 to endorse “the appropriateness and timeliness” of Henriette’s candidacy, they were making a statement. Unlike the canonization of wealthy white nuns or missionaries to the Americas, Delille and Toussaint represent a deliberate turn towards saints who spoke for and identified with the black community.

Henriette not only worked in the South among slaves, she actively resisted the cultural forces that encouraged her—as a light-skinned black woman—to “pass” as white in New Orleans society. While her siblings and parents registered as white in the census, Henriette registered as a free woman of color. Her decision mean that she was unable to join religious orders in New Orleans the majority of which did not admit non-whites. As such Delille is part of a wider phenomenon in which black Catholic women piously embraced their faith while also resisting its racist tendencies. As Cecilia Moore, a professor at the University of Dayton, has shown in her work on biography and autobiography, black Catholic women brought their own distinctive spirituality into the Church.

In the Roman Catholic Church the process of canonization is not a free for all: in order for it to take place, two verified miracles need to be attributed to the potential saint; in order for the miracles to be attributed people have to pray; and in order for people to pray they have to know who the saint is. In the case of Delille, her case (formally known as a “cause”) began in 1988. That the Church chose to look into Delille at all is due in part to the work of local historians, but also to a long-overdue interest in and awareness of the vitality and significance of African-American voices in Christianity in general. It’s not only the Catholic Church that can be seen as “lagging behind”: as Professor Nyasha Junior has shown in her Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation, the distinctive character of African-American female voices as something separate from feminism in general has rarely been acknowledged in the academic study of the Bible.

Though their race has often been whitewashed or rendered incidental by history, black saints have been part of the backbone of the Church from the days of the Apostles. But now, in the twenty-first century, we’re finally seeing a shift towards the explicit recognition of the role that black spirituality has played in shaping American Catholicism.