Honoring their heritage

Saturday, February 1, 2003

PITTSBURGH -- Name the patron saint of lovers: easy, St. Valentine. The patron saint of travelers: not too hard, St. Christopher.

How about a black saint?

Stumped? So are many black Roman Catholics, but that's changing.

"When I came up in the church, I thought all the saints were white because that is all I saw. Nobody ever told me any of the saints came from Africa. I never knew there were black saints," said the Rev. David Taylor, head of the St. Charles Lwanga Church and the only black priest in the Pittsburgh diocese.

Taylor, 56, and the heads of other predominantly black Roman Catholic churches in his area hope to raise the profile of influential blacks and Africans in the church with Masses, celebrations and other programs.

The emphasis coincides with the start of Black History Month, which is observed through Feb. 28.

"It is sort of a reflection of our times. We are now living in a society that wants to regain the heritage of a people who had their heritage taken away by slavery," said James Cavendish, a Catholic and sociology professor at the University of South Florida.

In Philadelphia, the archdiocese celebrates a Mass in November for St. Martin de Porres, the first black Dominican priest and first black saint in the Western Hemisphere.

The same archdiocese last year named a parish for St. Cyprian, who as Bishop of Carthage, the ancient north African city, took his church underground to avoid Roman persecution.

In New Orleans, black Roman Catholics recognize black saints each November with a party and parade.

Saints are held up as role models in the church, giving parishioners examples of how to act. There are saints of almost every age, occupation and country -- St. Agnes or St. Maria Goretti for girls; St. Stephen for bricklayers, and St. Martha for cooks; St. Nicetas for Romania.

Although there are many saints who are black and from Africa -- St. Martin de Porres, St. Moses the Black and St. Benedict the Moor -- they have largely been overshadowed by better-known white saints, said Deacon Daniel Vincent, head of Black Catholic Ministries for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, where one-fourth of the 400,000 parishioners are black.

The absence of black saints may have hurt the church's efforts to bring more blacks into the faith, Vincent said.

Black Catholics make up 2 million to 3 million of the 62 million Roman Catholics in the United States, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, which is affiliated with Georgetown University.

In October the Vatican published a list of saints that included Africans, said Beverly Carroll, executive director of the Secretariat for African American Catholics in the United States Conference of Bishops.

"Everybody likes to emulate people and know people of their race who have a list of good deeds," Carroll said. "We want our children to know there are black saints and that God didn't exclude us from people with special gifts."

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