In this past Sunday's reading, we were in Matthew 25, and we know that Matthew is coming to the end of his Gospel—the Great Commissioning. During this Black Catholic History Month, as we celebrate our people living the call of Christ, let’s take a moment to look at the “Magnificent Seven”—the first priests of Negro descent to serve in the U.S. Catholic Church. Jesus’ parable is, in its own way, the story of their lives and the people of color who continue to serve.
And so the story begins:
“A man who was going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one—to each according to his ability.” (Matthew 25:14-15).
The first I will mention is Augustine (“Augustus”) Tolton, who was ordained in 1886, having been formed overseas because there was no bishop in the United States who would accept him as a seminarian. Awed by the power of his witness, Negroes and Whites alike were excited to have him serve as their parish priest. Following Tolton, the Josephites made the first serious commitment to act boldly on their charism to form African-American leaders, receiving three men into their seminary: Charles Uncles (1891), John H. Dorsey (1902), and John Plantevigne (1907).
Like Tolton, all of these men were gifted ministers. Uncles was among the brightest men in his seminary classes, ranking among the top five academically in most and teaching in the formation program as well. Shortly after his ordination, Dorsey toured cities in the North and conducted missions in the South in an attempt to enlist White support for the Josephites’ mission. A pastor at a parish where Plantevigne conducted a mission was impressed by the 230 Catholics who returned to the sacraments and 30 who joined the Church in response to Plantevigne’s witness.
All of these priestly men who professed to be Negro, Catholic, and ordained had similar experiences in our Church. They were persecuted and vilified as they served, not merely by White supremacists or angry parishioners, but also by their brother priests and bishops. Almost all of these four died as young men, martyrs of their day. They were serious, and they invested their talents, overcame obstacles, and served all the people of God.
Also note the three brothers who are the foundation of the Magnificent Seven, ordained nearly 20 years before Tolton. James A. Healy was ordained in 1854 as the first known Black priest in America, though he concealed his Negro heritage from the public. In 1875, he became the Bishop of Portland in Maine, another first in the nation’s Black history. Alexander Sherwood Healy, ordained in 1858, was a gifted theologian who advised the Archbishop of Boston at the First Vatican Council. Patrick F. Healy, ordained in 1864, became the president of Georgetown University—nearly a century before the university admitted its first Black student.
To the Magnificent Seven, we repeat Jesus’ words to honor them:
“Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.” (Matthew 25:21)
There is another side to this parable, though: the life of the one who was afraid to acknowledge and use his gifts. This is true of White priests and bishops who denied Black men the opportunity to enter seminary in the United States, and of all who attacked the Magnificent Seven as they served the Church.
“Out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.” (Matthew 25:25)
Undeterred by the obstacles presented during formation and in ministry, the Magnificent Seven overcame the racism in the Church of their day and shared in the Master’s joy. As the people of God, we remember them by serving the Church as they did. In the face of great opposition, they took the cup as Christ did, putting service above self.
As it was for The Magnificent Seven, so it is for us.
Deacon Timothy E. Tilghman is a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Washington, currently assigned to St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church. He has two master’s degrees, one in public policy and the other in theology. He is the author of “Going to the Well to Build Community: A Pastor’s Guide to Evangelization.”