The History of Black Catholics In America
Mary Lange in the Milieu of Black Catholics of Antebellum America.
By Cyprian Davis, OSB

In the period after the Civil War, black Catholics began to meet and work together in a way that led historians to speak of a recognizable black Catholic community with its leaders, its programs, and its conscious self‑identity. It is more difficult to point out a discernable and unified movement in the period before the Civil War.  On the other hand, as more research is carried out, the common experience and yearnings of disparate movements open to us the world of antebellum black Catholics.


In the period prior to the Civil War, there were five centers of African American Catholicity. These were: St. Augustine and Pensacola in Florida; the Gulf area, encompassing Alabama, Mississippi, and southern Louisiana; the Southwest which would not become part of the United States until the Treaty of Guadalupe‑Hidalgo in 1848; the North central section of Kentucky; and the Baltimore/ Southern Maryland area. We can also speak of pre‑Civil War urban centers such as St Louis, Charleston, Savannah, Natchez, and New York.

St. Augustine in Florida was settled by Spaniards, white and black, free and slave. St. Augustine was the northern outpost of the Caribbean empire of Spain. As the British colonies encroached upon the Spanish settlements, their slaves were offered freedom if they made their way to St. Augustine and converted to Catholicism. Spanish Florida from the end of the 18th century until 1821 presented a Catholic Latin society where black slaves and free blacks had a freedom not found in the American South. Slaves could have firearms to hunt, free black boys could study at the school run by the priest‑provided they sat by the door – the garrison of soldiers were black, some of whom were from Cuba or from Africa by way of Havana.

A notice in the Death Register for blacks in 1812 is an example “Sunday, the eleventh day of December, eighteen hundred twelve, Francisco de Castro, soldier of the first Company of Black men of the Havana Auxiliaries in this plaza, a native of Africa, son of fathers whose identity is unknown, about forty‑four years in age who died in communion with our holy mother the Church.”

Although many black Catholics remained in Florida after the annexation by the Americans in 1841, many chose to leave for Cuba.

The territory on the Gulf of Mexico, from Mobile, Biloxi, and New Orleans were won for France by the two brothers, Pierre LeMoyne and Jean‑Baptiste LeMoyne. Africans were imported into the Louisiana territory in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. In 1763 Louisiana passed under the control of Spain. The population remained French‑speaking, but the Spanish governing council was the cabildo. The officials were Spanish; and so was the legal system.

The Spanish left their mark, especially on the history of the Church. In 1801, Spain returned Louisiana back to France. Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, wanted the port of New Orleans, one of the largest in the South, for the United States. Napoleon realized that he could not defend New Orleans against the British and in 1803 sold Louisiana to the United States for almost $15 million.

Louisiana had a very large population of African slaves. On the eve of the Civil War, there were 332,000 slaves and 18,000 free blacks out of a total population of 708,000 inhabitants? Free blacks or the Free People of Color were often the descendants of French slaveholders by their slave women. These offspring were often freed by their father and very often received a legacy from him. They formed a special status.

The free people of color, as well as those known as creoles, were of different complexions, not all were light skinned. Many slaves were able to avail themselves of legal remedy. In the Spanish law, a slave had the right to demand a price to buy his freedom from the slaveholder. Failing this, he or she could take the slaveholder to court and demand a third party who would set the price. Once the slave had the funds – which they could borrow – he or she was to receive a carta de libertad, a certificate of freedom

The free people of color were often artisans, shop keepers, skilled laborers, and peddlers. Many free women of color were cooks, laundresses, dressmakers, and prostitutes. They were property owners and also often slave owners. Some became very wealthy. Some journeyed to France and many stayed.

Henriette Delille (1812‑1862) belonged to the Free People of Color. She was the great, great granddaughter of Nanette, an African slave owned by Claude Joseph Dubreuil Villars, one of the wealthiest landowners in the area around New Orleans. She bore him several children, including C6cile, the great, grandmother of Henriette Delille. Nanette bought her freedom from the son of Claude Joseph Villars Dubreuil in 1763 and she later bought the freedom of several of her children, including Ucile.

Many free women of color became concubines to well‑to‑do white men. It was called plaqage. It was not a marriage, but it had a certain status in this very Catholic society. An arrangement like this was more or less common in many parts of antebellum America. But in this background of “genteel sin,” Henriette Delille’s vocation has all the more meaning. She began her religious congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family with the assistance of Juliette Gaudin (a woman born in Haiti) and Josephine Charles. Their ministry began as service for the poor, especially for abandoned and elderly slaves. They also began teaching girls of the Free People of Color and catechism to the slaves. An important work was acting as sponsor or witness at the baptism and marriage of slaves. They began as a group of pious women like a sodality evolving finally to a congregation with public vows in the course of the 1840s. By 1851, the Sisters of the Holy Family had become the second African American congregation of sisters.

Black Catholics came to north central Kentucky at the beginning of the 19th century. They came as slaves with the Catholic slaveholding families of Maryland to the Nelson, Washington, and Marion counties. The Sisters of Nazareth and the Sisters of Loretto were American foundations of sisters established in this area. Both of these congregations had slaves as did many religious sisters in the antebellum period. Father Charles Nerinckx, originally from Belgium, who came to Kentucky after the French Revolution, founded the Sisters of Loretto in 1812. In 1824,he encouraged three free black girls, who were students of the Sisters of Loretto, to form a separate community with a habit and a rule distinct from but similar to the Rule of the Sisters of Loretto. Because of his austerity and strictness, Nerinckx was sent away from Loretto and died shortly thereafter. The community of black sisters was disbanded. Not even their names are remembered. This was the first attempt to found a community of black sisters in this country.

Almost ten years ago, Father Bowen, at the time archivist for the Sulpician Archives, called my attention to a small, 5 x 7 leather bound volume entitled on the cover Confterie du scapulaire et de Notre Dame Auxiliatrice. This precious volume contained the list of names of those who joined as members some five confraternities, in French confterie, that is to say a pious association, mainly of lay persons and diocesan clergy, who elect to participate in the spiritual graces of particular religious orders. By joining a conftatemity, one resolves to practice certain pious exercises. For the devout, graces are assured to those who are faithful in their resolutions. The confraternity of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was begun by Archbishop Carroll in 1796. Those who belonged to this confraternity had received the Carmelite scapular, the well known brown scapular today.

The Scapular confraternity was by far the largest. The list of names covered some 55 pages between the years 1796 and 1858. With an average of 25 names per page, we can judge that there are over a thousand names in all. What is most interesting, however, is that a third of the names were those of blacks, most often identified as free persons, slaves, or mulattoes. The names and entries are in French. In this list we have a cross‑section of the Catholic population of Maryland. For our purposes, however, the lists of these names reveal to us the black Catholic milieu in Baltimore and even as far as Philadelphia. Among the names are the founders of the Oblate Sisters of Providence before the transformation into religious sisters.

The names of the founders are also listed in the register of the Confraternity of Our Lady Help of Christians (Notre Dame A uxiliatrice) which began in the Sulpician Seminary of Baltimore. The names of Elizabeth Lange, Marie Madelaine Balas Rosine Boegue, Theresa Duchemin appear again in 1815, 1822, 1823.

These lists of names may seem to be inconsequential. For the historian, however, this small volume is of great importance. In this way the historian can begin to put names and faces on the population being studied. For the history of African Americans, it is of the utmost importance because many sources, such as the census records often mentioned only the number and omitted any reference to names.

With this slim volume we learn that Mary Elizabeth Lange was in the States as early as 1813, and that she was already a young woman joined with Marie Balas and Rosine Boegue from that time. Equally as important is the fact that black Catholics displayed the same forms of popular piety as did their white counterparts. Those who were willing to enroll in a confraternity were people who were willing to do more than simply the minimum in their religious practice. Inasmuch as we have little other records or personal testimony, the names in these registers seem to indicate that many Black Catholics, slave or free, in the first quarter of the nineteenth century in the Maryland area were more than merely Catholic in name only.

Let me say a word about two women in the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary on July of 1814, one finds Marie Jeanne Montpensier, known as Fanny, a cousin of Juliette Toussaint. Juliette is the wife of the Venerable Pierre Toussaint. Pierre Toussaint born in Haiti in 1766 and was brought to the States by his owner, Jean Berard and his wife. Berard, who had returned to sell his property, had died in Haiti. Toussaint, who was trained as a hairdresser at the instance of his owner, Jean Berard, took care of Madame Berard who by that time was practically penniless. On her deathbed in 1807, she finally gave him his freedom. Pierre bought the freedom of his sister and his future wife, Juliette, who was also related to Jean Noel, barber, a benefactor of the Oblate Sisters, and the president of the Holy Family Society.

Pierre Toussaint walked in two worlds, the world of the great ladies of New York, whose hair he skillfully dressed and pressed into fantastic creations, and who at the same time was recipient of confidences and admiration; and the world of the poor and the destitute, the sick and the abandoned, the black boys who lived on the streets whom he welcomed to his home, and the many, both black and white, who sought to borrow or to be given alms and financial aid. Pierre died in 1853, acclaimed a saint by all both then and now.

Harriet Thompson is met for the first time in the Registry of the Holy Rosary Confraternity for the year 1829. The next time we meet her is in a letter written from New York in 1853 almost 20 years later. The letter is addressed to "Most Holy Father Visible Head of the Church of Jesus Christ." She wrote the pope to tell him of the situation of black Catholics in New York. She pointed out that their children were refused admission to the Catholic schools because of their race. She went on to explain that they had to attend the public schools; but as she said about the teachers in the public schools – who were mostly Protestants – as soon as “the teachers find any children in these schools to be Catholics they teach them directly to protest against the church of God. They tell them that the Blessed Eucharist is nothing but a wafer, that the priest drinks the wine himself and gives the bread to us and the divine institution of confession is only to make money and the Roman pontiff is anti-Christ.”

The question of Catholic education for black children was an ongoing problem for 19th century black Catholics. As early as 1817 in Philadelphia, six African American men known as “The Catholic People of Color residing in Philadelphia” approached the board of trustees of St Mary’s Church petitioning their help to have a teacher who will instruct their children in the catechism. As they said, “the different Sectarians are seeking and encouraging us to send them that they may instruct them, but if we do they instruct them their way .... our children are destitute of the means to acquire the knowledge of our religion and the duties whereby they might be able to repel the incessant attacks made on them by a set of beings who can quote the Scriptures with every phrase in order to seduce the ignorant. ”

The story of African American Catholics is a story of hope in the face of despair and faith in the face of defeat. In her letter to the pope, which arrived in the Vatican and was duly filed away in the archives of the Congregation of the Propaganda Fide after being read by the cardinal prefect, did have effect after the Civil War. Harriet Thompson said this to Pope Pius IX, “Most Holy Father, I pray you will pardon my liberty for writing this letter ... I hope, if it is the will of God for the black race to saved, something will soon take place for the better.” Because of black Catholics with the faith of this woman and because of the faith and strength of Mary Elizabeth Lange, we are here today.