Father Cyprian Davis, authority on black Catholic history, dies

By Sean Gallagher, Special to The Record

Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis, a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, died on May 18 at Memorial Hospital in Jasper, Ind. He was 84. He had been a Benedictine for 63 years and a priest for 59 years.

Father Davis was well known as the foremost historian of black Catholics in the United States. In 1990, he published what is considered the definitive book on the topic, “The History of Black Catholics in the United States.”

Father Kenneth Taylor, president of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus (NBCCC), was at a meeting of the NBCCC in Montgomery, Ala., when he learned of Father Cyprian’s death. Father Cyprian had been a founding member of the organization when it was established in 1968.

“He is the foundation stone for the development of black Catholic history,” Father Taylor said. “Covering that history that a lot of people — black, white or anybody in the church — were just not aware of led to the development of all kinds of other disciplines, like theology and liturgy from a black Catholic perspective.

“He had an affect all across the board in the development of the black Catholic community in the last half of the 20th century.”

Part of that development, Father Taylor said, was the way in which Father Davis helped black Catholics in the U.S. understand their importance in the Church in this country across history.

“The black Catholic community got a better sense of confidence that we have been a part of this church all along, and we have had an effect in the church all along,” Father Taylor said. “We’re not just an afterthought or just hanging on”
In a statement released after the monk’s death, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recognized Father Davis’ significance to the church in this country, but also the depth of his life of faith.

“Father Cyprian Davis was a significant leader as a Benedictine monk and priest of Saint Meinrad Archabbey and as a spiritual writer, historian, and advocate for the vibrant presence of African American Catholic leaders,” Archbishop Kurtz said. “His 1990 book, ‘The History of Black Catholics in the United States,’ remains the authoritative work in this important movement of Catholicism in the United States.

“Most of all, Father Cyprian was a humble child of God who sought in an unassuming way to live a life of holiness and to place his considerable talents at the service of Christ and his Church,” he said.

Transitional Deacon Douglas Hunter, a member of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Indianapolis who is scheduled to be ordained a priest in 2016, was a student in the last class that Father Cyprian taught at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad. Fittingly enough, it was on black Catholic history.

“He was a loving, caring individual for whoever was willing to learn,” said Deacon Hunter, who is also president of the National Black Catholic Seminarian Association. “He was always willing to educate everyone.”

Although Father Cyprian’s influence on the black Catholic community in the U.S. over the past half century was enormous, Benedictine Archabbot Justin DuVall said that Father Cyprian’s identity was always rooted in the monastery.

“Father Cyprian remained, at heart, a humble monk and never really forgot his origins,” said Archabbot DuVall. “It’s what he loved. When he was here, he was very much a part of our community.”

He also noted that Father Cyprian, whom he described as a “great storyteller,” had a great influence on generations of priests, having taught at Saint Meinrad for nearly 50 years, starting in 1963.

Father Davis, a native of Washington, D.C., was invested as a novice at Saint Meinrad in 1950, professed simple vows in 1951, and professed solemn vows in 1954. He was ordained a priest in 1956

He served as archivist of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, the Swiss-American Benedictine Congregation and of the NBCCC.

Father Davis wrote six books, dozens of articles, book chapters and encyclopedia and dictionary entries. An updated edition of “The History of Black Catholics in the United States” will be published this summer.

Father Davis assisted in the drafting of “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” the 1979 pastoral letter on racism published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and “What We Have Seen and Heard,” a 1984 pastoral letter on evangelization from black Catholic bishops in the U.S.

He is survived by a cousin and a niece.

The Office of the Dead will be prayed at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 20, in the Archabbey Church, followed by visitation until 9 p.m. Visitation on will be May 21 from 8 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. in the Archabbey Church, followed by the Funeral Mass at 10 a.m. Burial will follow in the Archabbey Cemetery. All times are Central Time.

Memorial gifts may be sent to Saint Meinrad Archabbey, 200 Hill Drive, St. Meinrad, Ind., 47577.

Sean Gallagher is a reporter for The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

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