A man prays during a Nov. 10 Mass at Mount Calvary Church in Forestville celebrating Black Catholic History Month. (CS photo by Michael Hoyt)
A man prays during a Nov. 10 Mass at Mount Calvary Church in Forestville celebrating Black Catholic History Month. (CS photo by Michael Hoyt)

As they’ve ministered to African American Catholics in U.S. parishes for the past 125 years, the Josephite priests and brothers witnessed history, including the impact of two World Wars, a Great Depression and the Civil Rights Movement.

At the Archdiocese of Washington’s Nov. 10 Mass at Mount Calvary Church in Forestville celebrating Black Catholic History Month, the order – known formally as the Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart – received an award reflecting the theme of the annual Mass, “Celebrating Steadfast Witness.”

Sandra Coles-Bell, the program director for the archdiocese’s Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach, introduced the honorees, noting, “My deep Catholic faith was imprinted by my grandmother,” whose life revolved around the sacraments and the spirituality and love that she and her family received from the Josephites who staffed their parish, St. Peter Claver in Baltimore.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the apostolic administrator of Washington who served as the main celebrant at the Mass, presented the award to Father Michael Thompson, the Josephites’ superior general, as the congregation offered sustained applause.

After the Mass, Father Thompson said the award was very meaningful. “As we struggled through very difficult times,” including enduring the Jim Crow era and persistent racism, “we continued to be steadfast,” he said.

Speaking of the African-American Catholics served over the years by the Josephites, the priest said, “They needed to be brought the message of God’s love, that God is a God for all people, and Christ suffered and died for all people.”

Father Thompson noted that he grew up in a Josephite parish in Port Arthur, Texas. Since his ordination as a member of that order in 2004, he served at Josephite parishes in his home state and in Louisiana. The priest said his faith and his vocation have been sustained by the witness of the African American Catholics whom he has served.

“It’s always the people that keep me going. I’ve learned from them, you have to stay steadfast,” he said. “It’s because of them (that) I’m here, because of their faith, their prayers, their struggles that I continue to be energized to continue to serve as a priest in the Josephite community serving the Black Catholic community.”

Josephite pastors continue to serve at three parishes in Washington, D.C.: Father Thomas Frank at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Father John Carroll at Incarnation, and Father Cornelius Ejiogu at St. Luke. Father Thompson was among the concelebrants at the Black Catholic History Month Mass, along with Father Frank and Father Ejiogu, and they were joined by Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr. and by the pastor of Mount Calvary, Father Everett Pearson.

In his homily at the Mass, Cardinal Wuerl paid tribute to the five African American Catholics whose causes for sainthood are now under consideration, including Father Augustus Tolton, the first publicly known black Catholic priest in the United States who was ordained in 1886 and whose life is being dramatized in a Nov. 15-18 production, “Tolton: From Slave to Priest,” being performed at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria and cosponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Arlington’s cultural outreach offices.

The cardinal also noted the sainthood causes of Mother Mary Lange, who founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore in 1829, the first religious congregation for women of color in the United States; Venerable Pierre Toussaint, born a slave in Haiti who gained freedom in New York and was known for his charitable outreach before his death in 1853; Mother Henriette Delille, a free woman of color who founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans in 1842; and Julia Greeley, a freed slave known as “Denver’s Angel of Charity” who died in 1918.

And Cardinal Wuerl noted that the U.S. bishops in their Nov. 12-14 fall meeting in Baltimore will be asked to consider endorsing the sainthood cause of a sixth African American Catholic – Sister Thea Bowman, a native of Mississippi who became a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and was famous for her inspiring preaching and singing. The cardinal said he will never forget Sister Thea’s address to the nation’s bishops in 1989 – one of the first bishops’ meetings he attended. She was confined to a wheelchair when she spoke to the bishops, and died one year later of bone cancer.

After Communion before announcing the Josephites’ award, Coles-Bell quoted one of Sister Thea’s reflections: “What does it mean to be black and Catholic?  It means that I come to my Church fully functioning. ...I bring myself, my black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I'm worth and all I hope to become. I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my  African-American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as a gift to the Church.”

In his homily, Cardinal Wuerl praised the witness and historic legacy of Catholics of African and Caribbean descent, noting that through times of slavery and segregation, and when they experienced racism in society and even in the Church, “We can be so proud that Black Catholics kept the faith. We today are beneficiaries of that faith, hope and love.”

The cardinal noted that the Archdiocese of Washington has an estimated 80,000 Black Catholics. “Everyone brings their gifts,” he said, adding that “we are a multicultural Church and a multicultural nation,” called by the Lord to see each other as brothers and sisters and to build up God’s kingdom here and now. “Together we’ll renew the face of the Earth,” he said.

The Archdiocese of Washington Gospel Mass Choir led the singing at the Mass, and after Communion, six members of the dance ministry from St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Washington performed. Along the walls were framed images of 12 African figures from the Bible, including Zephaniah the prophet, the Queen of Sheba, and Simon of Cyrene who helped carry Jesus’s cross.

Afterward, Anita Coleman, a parishioner of Holy Family Church in Hillcrest Heights and a member of the Ladies of Grace women’s auxiliary of the Knights of Peter Claver who attended the Mass, echoed the title of a much-loved spiritual as she reflected on the importance of the Black Catholic History Month Mass: “We have come so far by faith, by walking in the path of Jesus.”