Right before His Ascension, Jesus tells His Apostles, to “…make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:18). After an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles went and did just that.
Based on the popularity of well-known Saints, we may have fallen into the line of thinking that Christianity spread firstly across Europe. In reality, Christianity’s presence in Europe came after its prevalence in Africa. This truth is even illustrated in Scripture, when Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. Philip explains the fulfillment of the man’s reading choice. The eunuch rejoices enthusiastically about the Gospel, asking to be baptized right then and there. Philip obliges, the eunuch returns home, and Christianity spreads to Africa.
Early African Martyrs and Saints
Christianity dispersed across the Northern parts of the continent rapidly. Hundreds of Africans were some of the earliest Christian martyrs, including Sts. Perpetua and Felicity. Other notable African Saints include St. Augustine of Hippo and his mother, St. Monica. These may be some of the most well-known Saints from the region, but there are many more men and women of African descent who lived holy lives, contributed impactful work and service to the Catholic Church, and who intercede for us now in Heaven.
The United States celebrates Black History Month during the month of February. Let’s take a look at Catholic history and draw inspiration from these seven black Saints who built up the Body of Christ.
St. Josephine Bahkita
This gem of a woman (Feast day, Feb. 8) has been gaining lots of popularity among Catholic circles in recent years. Perhaps this is because of the fight against human trafficking and the fact that she herself was a victim of this horror. Kidnapped as a girl, she was sold and resold multiple times. She experienced beatings and mutilations before being sold to a family that instead used her to watch their daughter. Josephine accompanied the girl to school in Venice where she was introduced to Christ by the Sisters who ran the school.
When her owners decided to return home to Africa, Josephine refused to go. When a judge declared her to be free since slavery was illegal in Italy, Josephine joined the religious order that had brought her to Christ. She lived a life of “unnoticed holiness,” completing simple tasks for the rest of her life.
St. Maurice of Aganaum
Maurice was born less than 250 years after Jesus, near Egypt. As a young man, he entered the Roman army and moved his way up the ranks, eventually becoming a general. He took command of a legion in modern-day France right before being given orders to stamp out a rebellion against the empire. When Maurice and his 6,000 African soldiers discovered the rebels were fellow Christians, they refused to fight. Their disobedience earned (most of) them martyrdom. Their relics are housed in the Basilica in Aganaum, Switzerland. St. Maurice of Aganaum’s feast day is Sept. 22.
Venerable Mother Henriette Delille
Born in 1812 in New Orleans, Henriette lived a part of her life as a mistress in a placage, whereby wealthy white men entered relationships with free women of color, circumventing the laws against interracial marriage. Two children were born from this relationship, but after their deaths at a young age, Henriette expericienced a conversion and rejected placage altogether. Shortly after her thirtieth birthday, she and two friends formed a religious order for women of color: the Sisters of the Holy Family. Only the second religious community in the United States specifically for women of color, their mission was to care for the poor and elderly and to teach the uneducated of Creole society. Her cause for canonization is currently open.
If canonized, she will become the first New Orleanian, and the first United States-born black person, to be recognized as a Saint by the Roman Catholic Church.
There is not much known about this fifth century Saint. Because Severus was of royal blood, his conversion to Christianity was not taken lightly. At the hands of his torturers, he was thrown airborne before being jerked back down towards the pavement. His wrists were bound with ropes and the executioners drug him throughout the city streets until his bones were exposed. Somehow, this did not kill him immediately. It is believed that he died as a result of his tortures, and thus he is remembered among the early Church martyrs. Feast day: Feb. 8.
Venerable Pierre Toussaint
Pierre was born into slavery in Haiti. When an uprising threatened the safety of his owners, they fled to New York, taking Pierre, his younger sister, his aunt, and two other house slaves with them. In New York, Pierre became an apprentice under one of the city’s leading hairdressers, eventually earning large sums of money doing the hair of many renowned women in the city. After his owner died, Pierre financially supported the widow and the rest of the slaves with his earnings. He treated those who enslaved him as if he was a dedicated member of their family. Moved by his goodness and generosity, the widow granted Pierre his freedom shortly before her death. He became a philanthropist for the black community, opening home to many and purchasing the freedom of others (including the woman who became his wife). At his death, he was one of the most well-known and respected Catholics in New York City.
St. Martin de Porres
Martin was born in Peru, the illegitimate son of a Spanish soldier and a freed slave. His father was so unhappy that Martin had inherited his mother’s dark complexion that he refused to acknowledge him for years. After the birth of a baby girl, Martin’s father abandoned the family altogether, leaving them in dire poverty. Despite having almost nothing himself, Martin gave generously to those who had less than he. When he was mocked for his illegitimacy and race, he responded by doing nice things for the very people who made fun of him.
As a man, Martin wanted to join the Dominican Order. Peruvian law did not allow people of color to enter religious life, but the Dominicans allowed him to work as a servant, sweeping the floors and answering the door. He did so joyfully, and after years of good works and miraculous cures at his hands, the Dominicans worked around the law, allowing him to become a lay brother. Martin eventually founded orphanages for homeless his children and cared for lonely African slaves who had been forced to come to Lima. When he died, everyone in Lima mourned him, even bishops and members of the royal court. He is the patron Saint of persons of mixed race and of those who suffer from discrimination. Feast day: Nov. 3.
St. Moses the Black
Moses was a slave to an Ethiopian government official during the 4th century. When he was accused of thievery and murder, he was disowned (protection of his master being withdrawn) and started a gang. After one particular act of terrorizing, Moses fled to the desert to escape authorities. He found shelter in a colony of monks. Their dedication, peace, and contentment was like nothing Moses had ever seen before. Affected deeply, Moses gave up everything to become a Christian. He then joined the monastic community permanently and lived a life of prayer and fasting.
One of the most beautiful aspects of our Catholic Faith is its universality. Every member of the Body of Christ plays a vital role, and the steadfastness and perseverance of these men and women prove that each of us has an important role to play within the Church.
Somehow, despite betrayal and mistreatment, these black Saints showed deep and personal faith in Christ. St. Josephine Bakhita even once remarked that if she ever met the people who kidnapped her as a child, she would sincerely thank them. If it hadn’t been for that injustice, she never would have come to know her Redeemer, Christ. Every Catholic can learn from her example.
Let us all pray for the intercession of these Saints today. We ask that their humility, fidelity, and bravery may take root in our own hearts.
By Grace Bellon, Blessed Is She Ministry