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Black Catholic History Month mashup

Three largely forgotten Black Catholics are on display: victims of racism, erasure, the allure of non-Blackness, and—of course—the times.

In lieu of attempting to write up full reflections in the next few days on all of the Black Catholic figures that struck me over the course of this holy month, I decided to aggregate a number of different figures here, some of whom you might know and others you've probably never heard of. Let's get into it:

The Black Mother Theresa

Mother Theresa Maxis Duchemin was the third-ever Black Catholic Mother Superior in America, after Servant of God Mother Mary Lange (1828) and Venerable Henriette Delille (1836).

A co-founder with Mother Lange of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, Mother Duchemin was called to Monroe, Michigan in 1845 to found the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM).

It was the first White order founded by a Black person, although during her time in Michigan, Mother Duchemin (like the Black Catholic Healy family before her) passed for White—as much as she could, anyway. She would eventually face multiple exiles.

"If you take the pains to go & see that Mother Teresa & Sister Ann, & converse with them a little, you will soon discover in them, notwithstanding their advanced age, all the softness, slyness & low cunning of the mulatto..."
(Coadjutor Bishop of Detroit Peter Paul Lefevere)

Indeed, after her death, Mother Duchemin's biography was shelved and she was erased from the records of the order she founded. She remained hidden for 160 years.

"At one point, they even enlisted a cardinal to intervene in the publication of a book that might have outed them as having been co-founded by a Black woman."
(Dawn Araujo)
"It is strange that color should cause Religious to have a prejudice against a very deserving person. The Spouse in the Canticles is called 'Nigra sed Formosa', black but beautiful. I fear that some of the white opponents of good Mother Teresa are in reality more black [in soul] than the one they disown as their Mother."
(Fr. F.X. Schnüttgen, CSsR, a friend of Mother Duchemin's)

In 1992, she was revealed by the research of an IHM sister, which led to two sentences on their order's racism in a history PDF, and in 2001 an anti-racism committee run by their three congregations and the Oblates. It is not clear whether the committee is still active.

A local news story in Monroe this month on the IHM sisters' 175th anniversary makes no mention of said initiative, despite including comments from the local IHM congregation on other topics.

Indeed, the piece makes no mention of racism at all.

"Throughout these 175 years, we have served the people of God through a variety of ministries, always focused on our mission."

Well, some people of God, anyway.

Los Pobladores

In case you weren't aware, 26 of the 44 founders of Los Angeles were Black—and Catholic.

Recruited during the era of the Spanish colonial empire in the Americas (including California), the founders—known as Los Pobladores—established the "Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles" on September 4, 1781.

The rest was history. Sort of.

While the Spanish already had a rolodex of racial categories ("castas") that went far beyond the Black-White binary of the nascent United States, with the gradual transition to American rule came a growing dissociation from all things Black. And this attitude was not limited to White Americans.

Much like with Mother Duchemin, this meant that Blackness just had to go. And so it did.

As Los Angeles, and especially its historically Hispanic neighborhoods, came to be associated exclusively with Mestizo culture and appearances, the Afro-Latino heritage of the area became an afterthought at best.

Indeed, on the front end of the Civil Rights Movement, after a plaque went up on Olvera Street that explicitly noted the African ancestry of the founders, it was promptly removed.

Rumor had it that several Recreation and Parks commissioners had been displeased by its public display of the role Blacks played in city’s founding.
(Cecilia Rasmussen)

Regardless of intent, the plaque remained missing for decades, until a new one was created for the 200th anniversary of the founding, in 1981. That one has stuck around.

One street nearby, the "Calle de los Negros", was theorized to have been named after Black residents, but at least one old guard (Hispanic) historian dismisses the possibility—despite noting an explicit 1840 description of its "dark" and "substantial" Angeleno property owners.

“The descendants of Los Pobladores were very sensitive to the prospect of being revealed as having African roots. But history is history; you can’t change it. And the [anniversary] subcommittee found the evidence.”
(Dr. Doyce Nunis)

The same year the new plaque went up, a commemorative "Walk to Los Angeles" began taking place annually on August 29th, tracing the steps of the founders from the San Gabriel Mission to Downtown Los Angeles, an 8-mile journey. In 2011, an annual Marian procession and Mass began occurring around the same date.

In both events, Black Catholics are presumably not notable features.

Until next year, that is. (Lord-willing.)

The Black Shirley Temple

Philippa Schuyler, a Black Catholic musical prodigy, was born in 1931 to journalist George Schuyler and his wife Josephine, a moneyed White Texan from a slaveholding family.

Believing interracial marriage could "invigorate" both races and breed exceptional children, Schuyler's parents subscribed to a kind of reverse eugenics. Or, if one thinks creatively, the regular kind of eugenics.

Staunch conservatives, they left only so much to the imagination.

For three years before Schuyler's birth, her mother ate only natural and raw food, avoided meat, went on a body and mind preparing regime to cleanse her system in preparation to bear a "superior" child.
(Jet Magazine)

While it might not have saved her from tragedy, being put on this diet herself coincided with Schuyler's rapid rise to fame as a pianist, reportedly having been able to read and write at the age of two. Her IQ at age six was 185.

Somewhat predictably, her relationship with her mother was strained, and despite successes on the stage and in the press, she was a victim at home of physical and emotional abuse.

After learning in her teenage years of her parents' rather self-interested conception and rearing of her, Schuyler began to reject their ideologies and even their counter-cultural marriage.

Even so, she maintained somewhat anti-Black sentiments in the aftermath of the Scramble for Africa. She made no bones about them in her books, upon switching careers to become a writer.

Around the same time, she also attempted to switch races.

In her literary commentary on the Catholic missionaries to Africa, entitled "Jungle Saints", she revealed her Romanist sentiments as well.

"[Schuyler] believed that only the Roman Catholic Church could save Africa..."
(Phyllis Rose)

A truly conservative Catholic of her time—and perhaps ours—she followed her father's footsteps into the John Birch Society, wrote for an ultraconservative newspaper, and engaged in a number of affairs without marrying.

More tragically still, one of them involved a late-term abortion—in Tijuana, as abortion was illegal in America in 1965.

Doubly ironic, she procured the inadmissible because she, in fact agreeing with her parents' misconceptions, didn't want to raise a more fully Black child by a fully Black man, preferring her simultaneous White lover—which was also illegal in America.

Two years later, she died in a helicopter crash while doing what she loved in Vietnam: serving the Church and writing the news.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder of Black Catholic Messenger, a priesthood applicant with the Josephites, and a ThM student w/ the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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