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First black priests in US 'opened door for rest of us,' pastor says

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Mobile, Ala.

Black Catholic bishops, priests, deacons and religious brothers who gathered in Mobile for an annual joint conference celebrated the 80th anniversary of the first class of black priests who were educated and ordained in the United States.

"As we begin our preparations for the 50th anniversary of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, it is important for us to remember those pioneers who came before us," said Fr. Kenneth Taylor, president of the caucus.

"These men who were educated and ordained here in the United States opened the door for the rest of us. Because of what they did, we can do what we do," added Taylor, who is pastor of the Church of the Holy Angels in Indianapolis.

The clergy caucus holds an annual joint conference with the National Black Sisters' Conference, the National Black Catholic Seminarians' Association and the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons.

This year's joint conference took place July 27-31 in Mobile, where the Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary national convention took place July 25-30. Some events of the two meetings overlapped.

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A highlight of the joint conference was a review of the history of black Catholic priests ministering in the United States. Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago also gave a progress report on the sainthood cause for Fr. Augustus Tolton.

According to the clergy caucus, the Society of the Divine Word, a German-based missionary order, took on the challenge of formation of black clergy for America's black Catholic parishes.

In 1934, four black men educated in the U.S. were ordained Divine Word priests: Frs. Anthony Bourges, Maurice Rousseve, Vincent Smith and Francis Wade. All four suffered racial hatred "from within the church and in American society," the caucus noted.

Their ordination came more than 40 years after the first self-acknowledged black priest, Fr. Charles Uncles, was ordained in the United States -- in 1891. A native of Baltimore, he was educated at a Quebec seminary.

In 1893, Uncles was part of a small group that reorganized a mission society devoted to freedmen to create St. Joseph's Society of the Sacred Heart, known better as the Josephite Fathers and Brothers, to serve the black Catholic community.

Fr. James Healy (1830-1900) was the first black Catholic priest and later the first black Catholic bishop in the United States. His brother, Fr. Patrick Healy, was the first black Jesuit. Both were ordained in Paris, James in 1854 and Patrick in 1864. They were born into a mixed-race family of 10 children in Georgia.

"Both of these priests passed as white and found no racial barriers in their pursuits," the caucus report said.

Tolton (1854-1897), a former slave, was educated in Rome and ordained there in 1886. He founded the first black Catholic church in Chicago. The Chicago archdiocese formally opened his sainthood cause in 2010. In a progress report on his cause, Perry said two cures for which there is believed to be no medical explanation have been submitted to church officials for verification.

In general one miracle attributed to the sainthood candidate's intercession is needed for beatification, and a second such miracle is needed for canonization.

During the conference the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus presented its Brother Joseph Davis Award for lifetime achievement to retired Auxiliary Bishop Dominic Carmon of New Orleans.

During its business meeting the caucus also formally established a committee to oversee events to mark its 50th anniversary, which will be celebrated in April 2018.

Precious Blood Fr. Clarence Williams, who is vice president of the caucus, was named chairman of the committee.

By starting plans for the anniversary now, "we hope to encourage the black Catholic community and the church in general to reflect on our life changing journey of the last 46 years," Williams said in a statement. "The black and black Catholic movements have transformed the soul of this nation and have given us the moral strength to elect twice a black president which was unthinkable in April of 1968. Just think about that!"

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