The “Called to Sainthood” retreat on Nov. 25 was a reunion of sorts for the presenter, organizer and pastor of the hosting parish.
Deacon Allen Stevens of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Louisiana, presented the program that focused on six Black American Catholics who are on the path to sainthood.
The deacon, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania native, was ordained to the permanent diaconate in 1989 for service to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. In 1997, he moved to New Orleans to minister. Although retired, he continues to minister in New Orleans.
(See photo gallery above.)
Sister Jane Nesmith, SBS, director of the diocesan Office of Black Catholic Ministries, and also a Philadelphia native, knew Deacon Stevens when both served there. They also served together in New Orleans. In addition, Father James Watson, OFM Cap, pastor of St. Agnes/Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Cleveland, also is a Philadelphia native who knew the deacon there.
The program was hosted by St. Agnes/Our Lady of Fatima Parish in its recently rebuilt parish center. More than 80 people registered for the nearly daylong event. Deacon Hardin Martin of SAOLF, Father David Domanski, OFM Cap, administrator of Holy Spirit Parish in Garfield Heights, Cuyahoga County Jail chaplain and former SAOLF parochial vicar, and Father Anthony Simone, parochial vicar at St. Jerome Parish and presbyteral moderator of St. Aloysius-St. Agatha Parish – both in Cleveland – also attended, as well as several religious sisters.
The event opened with prayer, song and liturgical dance before Sister Nesmith introduced Deacon Allen.
His presentation focused on the four steps to becoming a saint:
- Request for canonization (At least five years must pass after a person’s death unless an exception is made by the pope. The person is called a “Servant of God.”)
- Determination (A report and request is sent to Rome. Once determined to be virtuous and heroic in his or her faith, the person is called “Venerable.”)
- Beatification (A miracle through his or her intercession must be verified unless the person was a martyr, then the candidate is called “Blessed” and can be venerated in his or her city, diocese, region or religious community)
- Canonization (Another verified miracle is require. The pope makes the final determination for sainthood and a special Mass is celebrated in honor of the new saint)
Deacon Allen explained that six Black Catholics are on the road to canonization. One will become the first Black American to become a saint. The candidates for canonization are:
- Venerable Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897)
- Venerable Mother Henriette Delille (1813-1862)
- Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman (1937-1990)
- Venerable Pierre Toussaint (1766-1853)
- Servant of God Julia Greeley (1833-1918)
- Venerable Mother Mary Lange (1789-1882)
He shared details about each of their lives and why they were recommended for sainthood.
In the case of Father Tolton, he was the first American Black man to be ordained a priest. He endured racism throughout his life and no seminary in the country would accept him for formation, so he went to Rome to study. After ordination, the Vatican sent him back to the United States where he ministered in Illinois until his sudden death at age 43. He inspired many Black Catholics to discern the priesthood.
Mother Delille, who could pass for white, was born to a wealthy French father and a free Creole woman. Although groomed for marriage to a wealthy plantation owner, she said the system violated Church teaching. Instead, she worked as a teacher and wanted to dedicate her life to God. She founded an order of religious women now known as the Sisters of the Holy Family, who are active in Louisiana. She taught religion and other subjects to slaves, which was illegal and risky. She died at age 50, likely of tuberculosis.
Sister Bowman was raised Protestant and converted to Catholicism at age 9 after being moved by the kindness and generosity of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, whose school she attended. At age 15, she entered their novitiate in Wisconsin, where she was the only Black sister. She taught about racial diversity and the importance of love and was involved in the burgeoning civil rights movement. She helped found the National Black Sisters Conference and was a well-known public speaker. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984. Despite her illness, she addressed what is now called the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. She died at age 52.
Toussaint was brought from Haiti to New York as a slave. After the death of his master, he supported his mistress out of Christian charity until she remarried. He was a popular hairdresser who catered to many high society ladies and always listened to the, with empathy and a unique perspective. He and his wife, who had her own business, amassed great wealth which they generously shared with Catholic ministries related to orphans. He also supported a community of Black religious and supported their orphanage. When his cause for sainthood was opened, his body was exhumed and reinterred in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, making him the only layperson buried in the cathedral.
Greeley was born a slave in Hannibal, Missouri. Despite her own personal hardships and health issues, she was known for her charitable efforts. She converted to Catholicism after becoming acquainted with a parish in Denver, Colorado, where she was a daily communicant and an active member of the Secular Franciscan Order. She also had a deep devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Greeley collected clothing, food and other goods to help the needy and homeless. She would pull a wagon loaded with supplies and stop at night to help people so as not to embarrass them. She is the only person buried in Denver’s Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.
Of African descent, Mother Lange was born in Cuba, migrated to the United States and settled in Baltimore, Maryland. Although well educated and with some money, she faced hardships because she was an immigrant in a nativist society, a woman in a patriarchal society, a Catholic in an anti-Catholic society and a Black in a largely racist society. She realized the children of fellow refugees needed education so with a friend, they began offering a free education for children of color in her home. She founded a school – St. Francis Academy, which is still operating – and a religious order for sisters of color, the Oblate Sisters of Providence. They also cared for orphans and the elderly, took in extra laundry and mending and begged on the street to support their ministries.
Deacon Allen showed a brief video about each candidate and noted there was a display about each on a table at the back of the room. There also was a board with important dates, facts and figures for Black Catholics.
“God blessed each of us with many gifts,” Sister Nesmith said. She asked those at each table to spend a few minutes discussing their gifts and to share their thoughts before the group broke for lunch.
Father Domanski offered prayer over the meal and Deacon Martin delivered a closing prayer.