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Canonization requires miracles. The 'Saintly Six' lived them.

As the world awaits the first Vatican confirmation of a miracle wrought by an African American, Ralph Moore Jr. says they should consider the obvious.

Six of the African-American Catholic candidates for sainthood on display at a church in Baltimore. (Jessica Gallagher/Baltimore Banner)

At this point, what constitutes a “miracle” goes to the heart of why there are no African-American Catholic saints in the year of our Lord 2024. Many miracles have been submitted to the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican, but not one has ever been approved for our candidates. Two miracles each must be approved by Rome for our candidates to be declared saints. The first six, the “Saintly Six,” as they are affectionately named by Black Catholics, are: Mother Mary Lange, Fr Augustus Tolton, Mother Henriette DeLille, Mr. Pierre Toussaint, Ms. Julia Greeley, and Sr Thea Bowman.

One confirmed miracle is required by the Vatican for beatification and another must be approved for canonization as a saint. This miracle usually consists of a healing brought about by the intercession—prayers to God directly—of the candidate for sainthood. That particular type of miracle has strict rules: no medicine taken or medical treatment undergone, and prayers said only to one particular sainthood candidate.

As it is, the Vatican looks at medical miracles mainly (if not only) for the process of saint-making. However, this can cause them to overlook God’s hand working through Black Catholic candidates for sainthood, who began healing the grave illness of anti-Black racism in the U.S. Catholic Church. 

When racist White American bishops in the 19th century refused Fr Tolton admission into their seminaries because of the melanin in his skin, he studied at one in Rome and returned to America as its first openly Black Catholic priest. When Elizabeth Lange and her Black colleagues wanted to become nuns, no White convent in the U.S. would admit them, so they got permission from the Vatican to start their own, Baltimore’s Oblate Sisters of Providence. They asserted their constitutionally protected, civil rights and their Gospel-guaranteed rights. They showed that Black women were blessed by God to be sisters.

The Oblates practiced civil disobedience when they began teaching the children of the enslaved to read the Bible in 1828. It was illegal and it was dangerous; people were killed for teaching the enslaved and enslaved people were known to often be killed for learning to read. The sisters knew this and chose to teach anyway. The sisters defied the law 100 years before the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Their resistance to the unjust law was a direct assault on White racism and was the beginning of its end in this country.

Tolton’s courageous return to America as the first openly Black priest, some 60 years after the Oblates began their ministry, strengthened the assault on prejudice, racial segregation, and White Supremacy in America. Tolton’s life and priesthood in Illinois challenged the disease of racism and helped to bring about its ending—its healing. The Oblates and Tolton were disease eliminators. If they hadn’t started the courageous curing of America’s sinful sickness, who knows where we would be today?

Mother Henriette DeLille also started an order for American women of African descent. Her doing so affirmed Lange’s courageous, groundbreaking statement. DeLille expressed the same message with her Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans, educating enslaved children caringly, but defiantly and illegally. They also tended to the elderly, asserting the societal and civil rights of senior citizens to be helped and supported in their vulnerable latter years. 

Pierre Toussaint, New York City’s vanguard of philanthropy, used money earned from his hairdressing business to help the forgotten, the neglected, and those despised by far too many. Julia Greeley, Denver’s “Angel of Charity,” gave of her personal goods and begged others for more. Toussaint and Greeley raised the profile of poor people’s needs by being abundantly charitable and at the same time not blaming the poor, as was common at the time.

Sr Thea Bowman racially integrated American Catholic worship and culture. She helped bring Black Catholic preaching, singing, and call-and-response sensibilities to the Mass. Bowman took the desegregation of Catholic Churches a step further by teaching African Americans to bring their full selves to the Church. Black parishes started gospel choirs and installed Black images of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, as well as angels and saints in their naves and sanctuaries. Yet, to this day, most U.S. Catholic churches feature no such representations of Black people at all. For many Catholics, all-White is all right.

The “Saintly Six” with their faith-inspired courage, their confidence in doing God’s will on earth, and their commitment to challenging White Catholic supremacy, changed the face of America and its Catholic churches. Racism infected Catholic institutions: churches, schools, seminaries, convents, housing developments, employment, and hospitals like a horrible disease. Priestly prejudice and discrimination belied the very Gospel they preached from the pulpit each Sunday. Nuns excluded Black women from their convents and Black children from their classrooms while considering themselves good Catholics. American bishops were silent and no less racist.

In the face of all that, Mother Lange, Fr Tolton, Mother Henriette, Mr. Toussaint, Ms. Greeley, and Sr Thea answered to a higher calling than the American legal system and ungodly Church practices. They accepted God’s work as their own and brought healing to a once-incurable disease. Healing the sinful sickness of racism in America is the miracle wrought by these six. It is time to give us our saints.

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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