Supreme Lady Elsie Morris presents a Special Service Award to Olivia Cormier
(right), KPC Grand Lady of Court #113.
By Alice Williams
Contributing Religion Writer
It’s been a very long time since the first African-Americans became indoctrinated with the Catholic Faith. It goes as far back as the year 1565 when the Spanish explorers brought them over as slaves, along with the Spanish religious practices, when they landed in Florida.
It’s safe to say Black Catholics originated in the southern states, including Louisiana, which was once owned by France and required slaves to be baptized, according to Law Professor and Lecturer Craig Manson of the University of the Pacific who reported to the Catholic News Agency.
Factually speaking, and according to Manson, under French law, slave marriages were required to be consecrated by the Church. ‘Jumping the broom’ was the American version that slaves could only marry by actually jumping over a broom together.
But under French rule, that just didn’t ‘cut it.’ It had to be done legally, usually with religious ceremonies. That’s why at some modern-day marriages, Black couples actually do jump over a beautifully decorated broom, but only as a symbolic gesture meant only to amuse their guests. To this day, Black Catholic families in Louisiana rival their Protestant counterparts in existence and practice.
Nowadays, however, when one thinks of the religious affiliation of Black folk, it’s usually with the Baptist Faith. This begs the question, “How has the Catholic Church served the Black Community?” (That is, if at all).
A quick look at recent history of Catholicism in the Black community might reveal that in the 1950s, when Civil Rights were the ‘hot button’ issue, the southern Catholic Church was ‘lukewarm,’ possibly because it had to abide by the stringent laws of segregation, as did Protestant churches.
Being a Catholic from Louisiana, I can attest to the practices of segregation. I recall how ‘Negro’ parishioners had to sit in the back of the church and receive communion only after all of the White parishioners were served. (Talk about sitting in the ‘back of the bus!’) A decade or so later, things were quite different. Numerous priests, nuns, and lay Catholics marched arm-in arm to loudly protest segregation and all its evils.
Currently, it is estimated that there are some 62 million Catholics in North America of which 30.0 percent are minorities, including African-Americans. As late as 2007, there was a major candlelight march across the John A. Roebling Bridge, which extends from Covington, KY to Cincinnati, OH, by Catholics from various nationwide organizations. The march specifically targeted racism in America that causes and sustains poverty among its victims.
In contrast, the Order of the Holy Family of Nuns originated in New Orleans in the mid-1800s, and the first Black American Bishop was appointed in 1875.
The lackadaisical Catholic attitude of the past is a far cry from today’s Catholic hierarchy and lay organizations. The National Congress of Catholic Bishops is busy dealing with such matters as voter registration, police brutality and human rights in general.
Then, there is the church-funded Catholic Charities USA that has been around since the early 1900s. It is noted for fighting human injustice and providing basic needs for minorities. Although its services are not limited to Catholics, it works in concert with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in conducting their Campaign for Human Development program that deals mainly with problems relating to social justice in the African-American communities.
Likewise, the National Office for Black Catholics started in 1970 for the express purposes of prohibiting attempts to dismantle the 1960-80 Civil Rights legislation, developing Black leadership roles, challenging Black indigenous problems, and easing racial tensions. These ongoing Catholic African-American projects and programs clearly speak to the efforts of the Catholic Church as it strives to assure the Black community of its genuine intent to help right the wrongs of the past.
Today, in describing the role of Catholic lay organizations, we have one of religion’s most popular organizations — the Knights of Peter Claver (KPC) that is a national African-American Catholic organization that was founded in 1909 in Mobile, AL. It now consists of 298 Councils and 312 Courts, with Knights and Ladies as well as Jr. Knights and Daughters.
Named for the 17th century Spanish Jesuit priest from Cartegena, Columbia who devotedly ministered to the African slaves, the organization is noted for its support of charitable appeals for such prominent organizations as the NAACP and the United Negro College Fund, as well as offers yearly scholarships to various predominantly Black Catholic schools.
Olivia Cormier, KPC Grand Lady of Court #113 for the past 15 years, feels the organization has adequately represented Black Catholics, but more can always be accomplished.
“We can increase our efforts to encourage our young people who are not pursuing a college degree to do so, and those who are in the process of achieving a degree must continue in school until their goal is reached. ‘Winners never lose, and losers never win’ is my motto,” she said.
It cannot be denied or disputed that the Catholic Church has had to confront some of its most worrisome problems, including the recent sex scandal and the ongoing fight against abortion. Those who have caused the former should seek Heavenly redemption, which the church preaches, and for the latter, the church obtains Heavenly blessings by continuing to save the lives of the unborn.