Walkabout: You’d have to be a saint to put up with this


(Pierre and Juliet Toussaint, of New York, prominent African American Catholics)

Yesterday’s Building of the Day was the St. Peter Claver School, located in Bedford Stuyvesant. Researching the building introduced me to Reverend Bernard Quinn, the pastor of St. Peter Claver Church, and a tireless advocate in the Catholic Church for African Americans. He lived and worked during a time when black folk of the Catholic persuasion didn’t have that many friends, not even in the church itself, and as someone who is black, and was raised as a Catholic, I found his story quite interesting and inspiring. Since he was a Brooklyn character, I thought that I would introduce him, and the church community that he founded here in Brownstone Brooklyn, to the Brownstoner audience. It doesn’t matter what you believe or don’t believe. Sometimes there are those individuals in history who are just, well….saints.

A little background first. As long as there have been Catholics in this country, there have been black Catholics, even if they were in chains. The Spanish, especially, were very zealous in converting their African slaves to Catholicism, as were, to a lesser degree, the French. Most of us are passingly familiar with the cultures of the Catholic South, especially in New Orleans, but also in Florida and elsewhere in the South, where Spain, France, Portugal and Africa met. This was true not just in America, but also in the Caribbean, Central and South America. The blending of Catholicism and African religion has given us Vodun and Santeria, a fascinating subject in of itself.

Here in the North, Catholic slave holders introduced Catholicism to their bondsmen. Free black Catholics from Haiti and the Caribbean made their way to New York, as did black European freedmen. There were many black Catholics in Catholic Maryland. One of New York’s most famous black Catholics was Pierre Toussaint, who arrived in New York from Haiti, in slavery to John Bérard and his family, in 1787. He became a hairdresser to New York’s wealthiest women, making so much money that he was able to support Mrs. Bérard after her husband died. When she died, she freed Pierre, who named himself after the hero of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture. He was successful enough to buy his sister, Rosalie, and set up shop in the city. Eventually, he married, after purchasing his own wife’s freedom.

The rest of his life was spent in doing charitable works for anyone who was in need, but especially for New York’s African American community. He sponsored orphans, mentored and sponsored apprenticeships for hundreds of young boys and orphans found out in the streets. He established a credit union, a food bank, and helped newly arriving Haitians coming to America. His most lasting achievement was being one of the financial founders of what is now the Old St. Peter’s Patrick’s Church, on Mulberry Street. At his death, in 1853, at the age of 87, he was mourned by the entire city, called “one of the leading black New Yorkers of his day.” He and his wife, Juliet Noel, were buried in Old St. Peter’sPatrick’s cemetery, but his body was moved to lie in the crypt underneath the main altar at the new St. Peter’sPatrick’s Cathedral, on 5th Avenue. He is the only non-clergyman buried there. In 1991, his name was put into consideration for sainthood. If canonized, Pierre Toussaint will become America’s first African American saint.

Pierre Toussaint’s life story was not the norm for most of New York’s black Catholics. The end of slavery in New York State, in 1827, did not mean that the Church (or very many other churches) opened the doors of fellowship to their African brethren. Like most of New York and Brooklyn society, the Catholic Church in Brooklyn mirrored the social attitudes of its people, and for most, that meant that black people were not welcome in their churches or parochial schools.

In an 1839 apostolic letter, Pope Gregory XVI condemned the slave trade as the “inhuman traffic in Negroes.” This came at a time when many Southern American bishops, as well as both men’s and women’s religious orders, were known to have slaves. It would take the Civil War to end this practice. In 1853, a black woman named Harriet Thompson, a member of the first black order of nuns in the United States, wrote to the Pope, complaining about the treatment of black Catholics in New York. She complained that black children were being denied entrance into Catholic schools because of their race. Unfortunately, this would continue to be the norm for quite a while.

The first black American priests were ordained in the 1870’s. They were James, Patrick, and Alexander Healy, the sons of an Irish-born, Georgian plantation owner, Michael Healy, and Mary Eliza, his bi-racial common law-wife, herself a former slave. Legally speaking, at the time of their birth, all of his bi-racial children were his slaves, as Healy and Mary could not legally marry. The boys and their other seven siblings were brought north to Boston, and educated in Catholic schools. All of the Healy children “passed” for white, and never brought their heritage up much, although they never denied who they were. They never strongly involved themselves in the struggle for equality for African Americans, but in later years, their racial heritage was a source of pride. In 1875, James Healy would become the first black bishop in America, in Portland, Maine, and would go on to found almost 100 parishes, schools and institutions.

Patrick Francis Healy would become president of Catholic Georgetown University in 1874, a school that would not admit black students for another 70 years. Healy was the first African American to earn a doctorate degree, and the first to become president of a predominantly white American university, chosen by the Jesuits to run Georgetown because he was the most qualified to do so, in spite of the “problem related to his background.” Healy is generally regarded to have been one of Georgetown’s greatest presidents, the man who made the college a major university. Their largest building, Healy Hall, is named after him.

By 1899, black Catholics were demanding to be part of the whole of Catholicism, not some separate category of the church. Unlike their Protestant brethren, black Catholics could not form their own denominations, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church. They had to stay within the Church in order to remain Catholic. Reform would have to come from within. In 1893, a conference of black Catholics, called the Black Catholic Congress, challenged the Church as it called attention to the church’s failure in its mission “to raise up the downtrodden and to rebuke the proud.” In 1916, a similar conference sponsored by the Committee for the Advancement of Colored Catholics, asks the Church to care for black servicemen, who were totally ignored by both the YMCA and the Knights of Columbus. The conference also proposed a platform and a plan of action for the “collection of data concerning colored Catholics, the protection of their interests, the promotion of their welfare, and the propagation of the faith among colored people.”

The problem was not in Rome, it was here in the United States, among the bishops. Entreaties by Rome to have the Church intercede, and speak out about the epidemic of lynching and race riots in the South in the late teens, were totally ignored by the American bishops at their annual conference in 1919. Not seeing any reason for black men to become priests, many bishops barred blacks from seminaries, prompting the founding of a black seminary in Mississippi in 1920, one wholeheartedly endorsed by Pope Benedict XV. It wasn’t until 1958 that the American Catholic Church finally denounced racism as immoral.

While one could easily wonder why anyone black would stay in the church, it would probably be because of the good that also accompanied this banality of casual racism. There were many in the Church who saw a need in the black community and met it. Katherine Drexel, heiress of the very wealthy Philadelphia family, themselves founders of Drexel University, became the Mother Superior of her order of Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, an order dedicated to the education and care of black and Indian children. With the considerable aid of her family, the order established over 60 schools and missions, including the founding of Xavier University, in New Orleans, the only predominantly black Catholic college in America. Other orders were also dedicated to helping the black community, as well. Within the Church, there were black Catholic self-help groups such as the Committee for the Advancement of Colored Catholics, and the Black Catholic Congress.

This history is a backdrop to the founding of St. Peter Claver, and the atmosphere in Brooklyn in the 1920s, when the church was proposed. Monsignor Bernard Quinn’s history within Brooklyn’s black Catholic community is a rich one, and this will be the topic of our next post. His achievements, and the community he founded in Brooklyn’s first African American Catholic church is inspiring.

Speaking of inspiration, a personal note. My mother was educated by Mother Katherine Drexel’s Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. She lost her mother as a baby, and my grandfather could not handle a newborn child. After being passed around to different relatives, she ended up in Brooklyn, and in the care of the Sisters. They saw to her education through high school, and paid for her college years at Xavier University, where she received a degree in education. She became a teacher, one who inspired her students throughout her very long teaching career, half of which took place in African American Catholic schools in Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant. She was forever grateful to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and stayed in touch with them for the rest of her life. I daresay I would not be who I am, tangentally, because of them, as well. She also attended St. Peter Claver Church many times. It’s a small world, sometimes.

Patrick Frank Healy, President of Georgetown University, from 1871 to 1882.

Bishop James A. Healy, first African American Bishop in the US. Photo: mrdsneighborhood.com

17 Comment

  • slopemope

    Great history.

    When you mentioned old st peters and (new) st peters, you were referring to old saint patricks and (new) saint patricks?

  • minard

    wonderful history lesson MM. Amazing.
    Old St Peter’s church on Park Place was built by French Catholics. It is the oldest Catholic church in the city. Old St Patrick’s was Irish Catholics. I would imagine Monsieur Toussaint would be more inclined to support the French speaking institution, but who knows? You’re the expert.
    The painting with the scissors is amazing. What is the significance of that I wonder?

  • minard

    wonderful history lesson MM. Amazing.
    Old St Peter’s church on Park Place was built by French Catholics. It is the oldest Catholic church in the city. Old St Patrick’s was Irish Catholics. I would imagine Monsieur Toussaint would be more inclined to support the French speaking institution, but who knows? You’re the expert.
    The painting with the scissors is amazing. What is the significance of that I wonder?

  • He was a hairdresser, and as totoro said, scissors/cross, great use of symbols. Paintings of many Catholic martyrs incorporate the instruments of their martyrdom, (a bit grisly, but…) He’s holding that which gave him the funding to do his good works. It would be less elegant to be holding a crossed brush and comb. I can only imagine the comments to be made on that one.

  • stuyheightsarch

    I read a great book on the Healy family.. Many people did not know of there Black background and this how they got so far in the Catholic Church. Great job MM…

  • Great history lesson for me because I grew up in an African American parish in the Greenville section of Jersey City. As a kid, I thought we were unique, based on what I saw at CYO basketball games, anyway. Evidently, not. There were orders that came into the inner city even back then, and the education they offered us made a huge difference in many many lives. And 40-50 years ago, it was practically free.

  • Great history lesson for me because I grew up in an African American parish in the Greenville section of Jersey City. As a kid, I thought we were unique, based on what I saw at CYO basketball games, anyway. Evidently, not. There were orders that came into the inner city even back then, and the education they offered us made a huge difference in many many lives. And 40-50 years ago, it was practically free.

  • Amazing history and amazing people. I have always appreciated your posts on every subject. Please don’t stop.

  • minard

    MM, inspired by your excellent narrative I googled “St Peter’s Church Downtown” to re-acquaint myself with the history of that extraordinary church, which is on Barclay Street, not Park Place as I wrote earlier. Anyway, it is worth a read. The history mentions Pierre Toussaint and his work during the Yellow Fever epidemics as well as his work with the St. Patrick’s orphanage. So he was active in both old parishes it would seem.
    Interesting that the first St Peter’s was built for foreign diplomats in NY who were catholic. The driving force was the Spanish ambassador. The current church dates to the 1830′s. It replaced the original church built for the diplomats on land leased from Trinity Church.

  • Minard, I actually find Madame Toussaint’s headdress quite interesting. In New Orleans, where they made an artform out of degrees of blackness and what that all meant, the way a woman wore her toque signified whether she was free or slave, or in plaquage, ie, the mistress of a white man. Women of color were required by law to wear this headdress, so a man could easily “read” her, and know if she was white or black, slave or free. Since so many people were as white looking as any European, but had that “taint” of black blood, you could have slave and free indistinguishable on sight. God forbid. The black slaves of young white women looked like sisters walking down the street. Which they often were. Goes to show how stupid the whole thing is.

  • Interesting NY history, says one who also grew up catholic, but of the irish persuasion. My grandmother had a similar early family life as your mother, and was also raised and educated by a different order of nuns in Brookyln (as were masses of children in various of their orphanages, apparently.) In that earlier era, late 1800s, she was trained to be a “typewriter” by the Grace Institute, which still carries on its mission of training women. How wonderful that the sisters paid your mother’s way through college and educated a teacher.