A symposium on Black Catholics, part of a yearlong commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Society of African Missions (SMA Fathers), was held last November at Saint Peter's College in Jersey City (see The Catholic Advocate, Dec. 20, 2006).
The event featured talks by three priests: Rev. Abu Cole, SMA; Rev. Cyprian Davis, O.S.B.; and Rev. Giles Conwill from the Archdiocese of Atlanta. The conference also marked SMA's 100-year anniversary of the establishment of the Catholic Church in the African nation of Liberia and the 100 years of service to the Black Catholic community in the United States.
Father Cole, a SMA priest from Liberia living in Tenafly, discussed the formation of the society in Lyon, France, by Bishop Melchior de Marion-Bresillac during a mis¬sion assignment to Sierre Leone in West Africa. The missionaries faced many trials, he said, noting that Bishop de Marion-Bresillac and his ini¬tial six companions all died of yellow fever.
Father Cole also discussed the Church's desire to form a ministry to Blacks in the United States. The SMA — under the leadership of Father Ignatius Lissner and at the invitation of the Holy See — accepted this challenge. From 1908-1913, with the help of Saint Katherine Drexel, the society opened and maintained six parishes and schools at various sites in the diocese of Savannah, GA.
The SMA also was active in establishing parishes in East St. Louis, California and Arizona, along with a seminary in Tenafly, which serves as the current location of the SMA's American Provincial headquarters. The SMA's American Province was formally established in 1941 with Father Lissner as its first provincial superior. The goal in establishing the Tenafly seminary was to prepare both indigenous and non-indigenous priests to work on the missions to Blacks in the south.
Father Davis, a professor of Church History at St. Meinrads Abby, IN, and the author of many books, including the critically acclaimed History of Black Catholics In The United States, focused on three women of African descent — Mother Theodore Williams, Mathilda Beasley and Mother Emma Lewis ("Three Women Against All Odds"). Mother Theodore was the first superior of "the Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary," a community of African-American Sisters that was established in Georgia by Father Lissner.
Father Davis explained that this community, under the direction of Mother Williams, grew slowly and suffered because of racism and political backlash. He said the situation became so bad that the sisters were forced to move to their current home, which is in the Harlem section of New York City.
The second woman Father Davis discussed was a Mathilda Beasley, who died in Savannah before the arrival of Father Lissner. "She was a leader and a guide. Like Mother Theodore she worked in Georgia, but unlike Mother Theodore, her work failed." Mother Beasley suffered financial hardships that were too great for her to overcome and she died in 1903 without truly realizing her dream, Father Davis said.
The last woman that Father Davis discussed was Emma Lewis, a lay African-American woman who converted to Catholicism. Mother Lewis worked among Black Catholics in Philadelphia and eventually moved to Atlantic City where she helped to establish the mission of St. Monica and also the Knights of Saint John.
Father Conwill, a professor of History at Morehouse College in Atlanta, discussed the spirituality that can be found among peoples of African descent. He described the African Diaspora (the slave trade) and how the transplanted Africans brought their culture with them to the Americas.
He said many of the African styles of worship still exist. Father Conwill cited the cathartic shout (Alleluia); the call and response pattern in songs and preaching; the emphasis on percussive rhythm; possession by the Holy Spirit; and choreographed choir singing (swaying side to side), all of which can be found in many African-American Catholic Churches.
(Editor’s note: Deacon Keith McKnight is the vocation director for the SMA Fathers, American Province; Web site: http://www.smafathers.org/smahtml/usprovince.html. Located at 23 Bliss Ave., Tenafly, Father Thomas Wright serves as the provincial superior. The SMA American Province has 34 priests and more than a dozen lay missionaries in the African nations of Liberia, Ghana, Kenya, and Tanzania, as well as throughout the United States. Deacon McKnight, who serves at Christ The King Parish in Jersey City, organized and mod¬erated the November forum at Saint Peter's College.)