PROVIDENCE — During the month of November, the Diocese of Providence will join other dioceses throughout the country in celebrating Black Catholic History Month, a time to honor the accomplishments and experiences of black Catholics throughout the history of the Church.
Established in 1990 by the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus and distinct from Black History Month (celebrated nationally in February), Black Catholic History Month offers an opportunity to celebrate the rich history of black Catholics in the Church, from the early Church of the apostles to the contemporary experience of African Americans and black Catholic communities around the world. Patty January, coordinator of the Office of Black Catholics, offered a preview of celebrations taking place throughout the diocese.
“The bishops in their thinking thought that there was not enough awareness of the black Catholic experience being included in the development of the Church,” she said. “Throughout the month I’m hoping that we have churches celebrating and presenting to the parishes information about the black Catholic experience in the Church.”
The theme of this year’s celebration, “In the Beginning,” marks the contributions and experiences of black Catholics from the earliest days of the Church. As January pointed out, many of the early Church fathers were of African descent, particularly North African, though their heritage is often overlooked in Western education and artistic portrayals. She hopes Black Catholic History Month will offer an opportunity to educate more people about the faith and perseverance of Catholics of African descent during this period of Church history.
“We have been faithful to the Church through all of our experiences no matter what happened. And we look to our faith in the face of adversity as a way of helping us through,” she said.
Among the notable figures whose stories will be celebrated this month are Saint Augustine of Hippo and his mother, Monica; Popes Victor I, Miltiades and Gelasius I; and Saint Maurice, a third-century Egyptian and soldier in the Roman army. Other notable figures of African descent recorded in the New Testament include Simon of Cyrene, the traveler from present-day Libya who was chosen to carry Jesus’ cross, and the unnamed Ethiopian who meets Philip on the road to Gaza and is recorded as one of the earliest converts in the Acts of the Apostles.
“In this encounter and talking to Philip, he then became converted right then and there,” said January. “We as Catholics, we as people of faith, in speaking to brothers and sisters should always bring about that impression of the living Christ. We should always bring about that impression no matter what color and creed and religion you practice.”
In addition to distributing educational material about notable Church figures, the Office of Black Catholics has encouraged parishes throughout the diocese to consider hosting a Mass commemorating Black Catholic History Month during the month of November. Some elements that may be incorporated into the celebration include a litany of black Catholic saints and a prayer of the faithful for peace in our communities developed by the USCCB.
St. Patrick Church, Providence, where Father James Ruggieri serves as pastor, is among the parishes that plans to commemorate Black Catholic History Month during an upcoming liturgy.
“We have a variety of people from different ethnicities, so any chance we have to do something to acknowledge that and foster appreciation for our cultural diversity, we try to do that,” he said.
Father Ruggieri also emphasized that while he hopes to raise awareness of the black Catholic experience during Black Catholic History Month, the celebration continues throughout the year at St. Patrick’s, where parishioners often find opportunities to highlight their varied cultural experiences. For example, many of the saints whose stories will be celebrated during Black Catholic History Month, including St. Augustine, St. Martin de Porres, St. Charles Lwanga and St. Josephine Bakhita, are depicted in a portrait series that graces the walls of St. Patrick Church year-round.
“There’s already an acceptance of cultural diversity here,” he said. “We’re used to the cultural diversity. It’s good because it’s a part of our identity.”
Other parishes that plan to offer Masses commemorating Black Catholic History Month during November include Holy Name Church, Providence; St. Sebastian Church, Providence; St. Michael the Archangel Church, Providence; and St. Kateri Tekakwitha Church, Exeter.
January said she hopes parishioners throughout the state will be reminded not only of the contributions of black Catholics in early Church history, but also of the importance of reaching out to embrace the many cultures that make up the Church today.
“We don’t live in this vacuum. Our faith is not just wrapped up in Providence, Rhode Island. But we are in a faith that is so diverse and widespread throughout the world that you never know who or where the connection will happen,” she said.