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More female Catholic saints? Look no further than Mary, Henriette, Julia, and Thea.

Ralph Moore Jr. says Women's History Month is a good time to remember the saintly female Black Catholics who helped build America.

(Yifan Luo/Baltimore Banner)
“The cause of Justice is and always will be in strict accordance with the Will of God.”
Sr Mary Roger Thibodeaux, SBS (1937-2024)

During Women’s History Month, the annual International Women’s Day is deservedly celebrated on March 8. As the ancient proverb reminds us, “It is women who hold up half of the sky.” And so, it was fitting on IWD in 2022 that Pope Francis made the following profound statement:

“The Catholic Church needs women, especially women saints, who have shown throughout history an unwavering dedication to God and to caring for their brothers and sisters.”

Of the first six African-American candidates for sainthood, four are women: Mother Mary Lange, Mother Henriette DeLille, Ms. Julia Greeley, and Sr Thea Bowman. They were each a pillar of faith in God, courageous in seeking justice from a White Supremacist U.S. Catholic Church, and true women for others: helping children, the elderly, the needy, and Black American Catholics seeking cultural reflection in their Church.

The pope’s remark in 2022 was made during a conference at Rome’s Pontifical Urban University entitled, “Women Doctors of the Church and Co-Patronesses of Europe.” But what about the great women who, while struggling against racism, educated children, took care of the needy, and inspired their people to be Black and Catholic at the same time? What about African-American women?

Pope Francis is a good and decent man, a charismatic and courageous pope and is willing to listen, learn, and act. The Social Justice Committee of St. Ann Church in Baltimore, Maryland has mailed him thousands of letters over nearly three years to expedite the sainthood causes of the Black women mentioned above.

Committee members Delores Moore, Mary Sewell, and I met with the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints in Rome a few months ago and mailed gifts to the pope—which FedEx said were received. In a letter sent with our church’s gifts, there was a request for a Zoom session with the Holy Father. (He has, after all, recently given audiences to filmmaker Martin Scorsese, comedienne and talk show host Whoopi Goldberg, and movie actress Catherine O’Hara, “Home Alone” fame.) 

We’ve received no response to our request from him or his staff.

We Black Catholics and our allies want to know why he can’t see us or hear us. More importantly, we want to know why he cannot see or hear stories such as Mother Mary Lange’s founding of the Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1829, a year after opening a school—St. Frances Academy, which is still in operation—for the children of the enslaved to teach them how to read the Bible and get closer to God. 

Or what about Mother Henriette DeLille, who in 1837, a few years after the first order of African-American women religious was formed, started the second, the Sisters of the Holy Family? This, despite the widespread and raging White Supremacy of American Catholic clergy and laypeople, including in her native New Orleans, Louisiana.

And what about Julia Greeley, Denver’s “Angel of Charity,” born into enslavement in 19th-century Missouri? She moved to Colorado for work and began providing assistance with food, clothing, fuel, and even mattresses to those who needed them. Her work helped establish charity in this country as central to American life.

Finally, what about Sr Thea Bowman? Born in Mississippi in 1937, she took the cultural awakening she experienced in the late 1960s to African Americans everywhere. She taught and advocated unceasingly for Black music, Black preaching, and greater awareness of Black saints in her Church. Sr Thea inspired African-American Catholics to be themselves and to call for the acceptance of Black people fully, especially in the Catholic Church. Incidentally, she was also the first (and to date, only) African American to join the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.

The four female Black American candidates for sainthood should be lifted up as great American Catholic heroines. 

Mother Lange and the early Oblate Sisters were freedom fighters and civil rights agents who may have inspired the renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass toward his work. At eight years old, he moved to Baltimore in 1826 and shared a neighborhood, Fell’s Point, with the African-American women in religious formation who eventually opened a rowhouse school to teach reading. Douglass’ autobiographies speak of his childhood desire to learn how to read. He may have heard of the school and, three years after his arrival, seen the sisters in his district, easily distinguishable by their bonnets and habits. There is not yet historical proof that they ever connected or corresponded, but it is possible the Oblate Sisters’ commitment to social justice and practice of civil disobedience—ignoring laws that banned the enslaved from literacy—had an impact on one of the greatest activists in history.

Sr Thea famously spoke to the assembled U.S. Catholic bishops in 1989 at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. She spoke of inclusivity, greater acceptance of Black people and Black culture in the Catholic Church, and the concrete realities of Black history and theology. Her unprecedented address resulted in “thunderous applause and tears flowing from their eyes,” according to the African-American priest, preacher, and thought leader Fr Maurice Nutt, CSsR.

What about these four women, Pope Francis? We, the members of the Social Justice Committee of St. Ann Church here in our nation’s oldest archdiocese—Delores, Mary, Betty Lutz, Tyrone Wooden, Janiece Jefferson, James Conway, and I—recognize how marvelous they are and how much they glorify the greatness of our God. We need our pope to say to the world, “These Black Catholic women have remained faithful to God and have magnified who God is to others: students, the elderly, the needy, unaware bishops, and the uninformed public. They are great examples of the type of women saints of which we need more.”

Mother Lange, Mother DeLille, Ms. Julia Greeley, and Sr Thea were truly “co-workers with God,” to use a phrase from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Their lives of generosity and courage should inspire us all. Rather than the Catholic Church inadvertently sending the message that no good deed goes unpunished, and not realizing that sainthood delayed is sainthood denied, it is time to make Catholic saints of these four women now.

Ralph E. Moore Jr. is a lifelong Black Catholic, educated by the Oblate Sisters of Providence and the Jesuits. He has served on various committees on race, racism, and poverty for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He is a married man with two children and four grandchildren. He is a member of the St. Ann Social Justice Committee. He can be reached at

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