Ember Duke | Staff Writer
Six Black Americans are in the process of becoming saints through canonization, and The Catholic Studies Department is holding a special exhibit to bring awareness for Black history month.
In the bustle of changing classes, students stopped on the 4th floor of College Hall to interact with an informational exhibit called “A Tremendous Light, The Lives of Black Catholic Saints.”
Catholic Studies Program Coordinator Ren Witter conducted the research for the exhibit in hope to bring light to the deep history of Black Catholics that she feels is often overlooked.
“Black Catholics, not just in America, but from the outside throughout the diaspora are a major part of Catholic history,” she said. “There are Black Catholics, they’re an immensely important part of this community, and not just in America, but all over the world.”
There are no officially recognized Black American saints and through the process of canonization these individuals will become recognized as an official saint by the church.
Bridging a gap between communities and creating room for black stories in secular spaces is the drive for her research and the purpose of the exhibit. The display is interactive with audio elements and take home informational prayer cards for those interested in doing more independent research.
“I also think it’s really important for non black Catholics, and people who aren’t Catholic at all, to fall in love with the stories of people from a community that they are not a part of, because how often does that happen,” she said. “You know, the best way to overcome racism, bigotry, fear of the other is to learn to love them, you know, that’s going to overcome all of those things much more than trying to like, force yourself, like fall in love with someone who isn’t like you, and then all of a sudden those things just start falling away.”
There are roughly three million Black Catholics in America and 200 million in the world, Witter said.
Adjunct catholic studies professor, Greta Tucker, helped Witter to focus the research.
“She [Tucker] said, If you put everything on the table people will think that’s all there is,” Witter said. “By focusing, by telling one story, because all these six people are part of one story, which is the pursuit of a black catholic American saint, you say “there is so much more to be told.”
Addressing these six figures was a way to get people interested and an opportunity to expand the conversation on black history, Tucker said.
“My only suggestion was, maybe you want to start with them since there’s a lot in the media about the six. And then from these specs, you can talk about a whole gamut of other issues and things about the church and a historical period,” Tucker said.
Canonization in many cases takes hundreds of years as there are currently two criteria for sainthood. Acclimation, an approval by the Pope that the person has lived a heroic and virtuous life is the most common. Otherwise, an irrefutable miracle, often a healing, must be proven through a rigorous scientific investigation.
Currently, there are 11 recognized American saints. Of six of the people highlighted in the exhibit, two are classified as servants of God, the first step towards official sainthood, and the other four are venerable, which is the next level.
The exhibit focuses on the historical figures Venerables Pierre Touissaint, Henriette Delille, Augustus Tolton, Mother Mary Lange, and Servants of God Thea Bowman and Julia Greeley.
Excited to check out the display for herself, Tucker said she is excited for people to learn as she felt many Catholics don’t know the role of black ministry in the church.
“I hope they come away with a sense of the vastness of the Catholic Church. That the Catholic Church is so diverse in terms of its people, its language, its cultures, its races, spirituality, and how much people of African descent have given to the church,” Tucker said.
Physics and Mechanical Engineering major Samiya Henry gave a presentation on the importance of black catholicism for independent study, based on content from the National Black Catholic Congress convention. It helped to get the ball rolling for the research exhibit.
“All the information that she [Witter] found gives you just enough to discover which one you connect to the most, and if you connect there’s enough there that you can walk away learning something, but there’s enough that’s not there that intrigues you to learn more,” Henry said.
“Beautiful” is how she described the accessibility and content of the exhibit. Excited by the uplifting of largely overlooked historical figures, Henry felt the reach of the exhibit will engage students and hopefully inspire love for these stories.
“Just to recognize that while people may look different than you, there are so many similarities,” Henry said. “I think it’s very pivotal in Duquesne’s celebration of black history month,” Henry said.
Witter said at its core the church condemned bigotry, but this ideal has not always been practiced. She felt it crucial to include historical context into her research to engage with the audience in a meaningful way.
“I think when you’re telling the story of black Catholics in America, you’re going to have to tell the story of slavery and racism,” Witter said. “So you have this bizarre, terrible situation that should have never happened, which is Catholic families, enslaving Catholic families… So that side panel is really all about that. And then a lot of the major documents from the church that are explicitly condemning racism of slavery, and then moving into modern day, where we have both Catholic churches and institutions condemning racism, and then a lot of documents from the black Catholic bishops in America, speaking about it as well.”
Witter is excited for students to engage and said some classes are using it as an extra credit opportunity. The display will remain up through the end of Feb in College Hall on the fourth floor.