African Saints Our History & Inspiration
Of the thousands of holy men and women who contributed to the Catholic Church, some are officially recognized as saints, others are on the road to sainthood and some remain anonymous. Many holy men and women of African descent are not well-known in the Universal Church, and thus, their contributions in salvation history are often overlooked or presumed absent. People of color are also too often viewed as newer worshippers in the Catholic Church and Christian experience, despite Acts 8:26-40 providing 1st Century evidence to the contrary. There, we learn that the Ethiopian eunuch joyfully carried the faith back to East Africa, while history reveals that in the 6th Century, East Africa received Christian missionaries from both Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora.
So, knowing the Catholic faith was embraced early by people of color from the African continent, we also know that many are recognized as saints.
My interest in African saints grew during the 1990s while teaching “The History of Black Catholics in the United States” at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, PA. Father Cyprian Davis’ book opened my eyes to the existence of the three Black popes (Pope St. Victor I: 189- 198 A.D., Pope St. Gelasius I: 492-496 A.D. and Pope St. Miltiades: 311-314 A.D.) and a host of other saints absent from our parish and school religion lessons.
I began cataloging these ordinary men and women who led extraordinary lives. After years of teaching, and traveling to Africa to confirm as many stories as possible, I realized that the actual number of recognized African saints is too large to count. The Alexandrian Plague Martyrs of 257 AD, St. Maurice and the Theban Legion of 287 AD, St. Charles Lwanga and Companions of 1886 AD, and many more make their numbers staggering.
St. Josephine Bakhita from Sudan particularly intrigued me.
Captured at a young age and sold into slavery, she eventually accompanied an Italian couple’s daughter, as a nursemaid, to a school operated by the Canossian Sisters of Charity. Bakhita gained her freedom, was baptized, and became a Canossian Sister, being canonized a saint in 2000.
An important group of saints to know are the first known African martyrs – St. Speratus and Companions (180 A.D.), who were arrested near the ancient city of Carthage for reading the letters of Paul and professing to be Christians.
I would be remiss to omit the six African Americans currently on the Road to Sainthood who inspire us with their holy lives. We are grateful to Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, Venerable Mother Henriette Delille, Servant of God Julia Greeley, Servant of God Mother Mary Lange, Venerable Father Augustus Tolton and Venerable Pierre Toussaint.
In my prayers, I give thanks that the Lord sent these holy men and women into the world to nurture us, intercede for us and embrace us. I feel called to remember and share their stories as often as possible, as well as say their names aloud and pray through their intercession. Let us pray for more saints of color – that their lives and examples of holiness will assist us on our journey toward the heavenly Kingdom of God.
Dr. Camille Brown Privette is the Associate Superintendent for School Leadership and Community Programs for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. She holds a B.A. in History from Franklin and Marshall College, an M.A. in Theology from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and a Ph.D. in Educational Administration from Boston College. Dr. Brown Privette founded the Bakhita Fund to provide educational assistance to children around the world. She has been an African missionary for 20 years and penned many articles and four books, most notably, African Saints, African Stories: 40 Holy Men and Women.
This article appeared in the March 2022 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.