Vocation Awareness Week — History of Black priests in Kentucky

Father Anthony L. Chandler

By Father Anthony L. Chandler

I have wanted to be a priest since the second grade. This thought can be traced back to my observing the priests that I knew: Father Charles Zengel, Conventual Franciscan Father Don Fisher, Father Larry Hardesty, Father Joe McGee and Father Robert Reilly. All of these men preached, they were personable and good pastors. I wanted to be like them, and they encouraged me.

Certainly, like most African American priests in the United States, I had never seen an African American priest. In the mid 70’s, I was introduced to Father Giles Conwill, Father Edward Branch and Father Augustine Sasa, two African Americans and a priest from Uganda. It made a huge impact on me to know that Black men like myself could be in a role that was seen, at least to me, as predominantly white.

The church in the U. S. for the majority of its history barred ordination, education and even encouraging of Black vocations. It really wasn’t until the mid-20th century that Black priests were ordained in larger numbers. Many Black men still faced significant hurdles to get through, including harassment and hostility from fellow seminarians. As was the case in this archdiocese, many were directed to other dioceses or toward missionary orders that ministered specifically to African Americans, such as the Josephites, Edmundites or the Society of the Divine Word.

The Archdiocese of Louisville has had any number of African American seminarians throughout the years, some studied for the archdiocese and still others for religious communities. Lack of support on the part of earlier bishops and any number of factors led to none being ordained for the archdiocese until 1974 with the ordination of Msgr. Edward Branch, now of Atlanta. His brother, Father Leslie Branch, also a priest, was the first Black Catholic Navy chaplain.

The low number of African Americans in the priesthood is not new. Catholics of African American descent have been in the Americas for as long as there have been Catholics in the Americas, but the church in the United States has long resisted their presence in the clergy.

The first priests of African descent in the United States were mainly Creole or mulatto and passed for white, and it was not until 1886 that the U.S. had an openly Black priest. Even then, it wasn’t because American bishops and Catholics had accepted racial equality in the clergy.

The Healy Family of Georgia became notable in U.S. history because of the high achievements of its first generation of children, who were born into slavery in Georgia. They were mixed-race children of Mary Eliza Smith, a mulatto slave and her common law husband, Michael Morris Healy, an Irish Catholic immigrant from County Roscommon. He was a wealthy cotton planter. Georgia prohibited slaves from being educated. As Healy was determined to provide a future for his children, he sent them North for their education, as did some other wealthy planters with mixed-race children.

Three of the sons became ordained priests and educators. They all studied at St. Sulpice Seminary in Paris, even though the same community of Sulpicians would not accept Black candidates in their U.S. seminaries due to the objections of bishops and their seminary students.

James Augustine Healy became the first American bishop of African-American descent, becoming the Bishop of Portland, Maine, in 1875. His brother, Father Patrick Healy, became the president of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.; and Father Sherwood Healy was ordained a priest for Boston, earned a doctorate in canon law in Rome, and oversaw the construction of the Cathedral of Holy Cross in Boston.

Servant of God Augustus Tolton, born of enslaved parents, applied to seminaries across the country with the help of an Irish priest he had been studying with. No seminary in this country would take him because he was Black, so he instead had to study in Rome, where he was eventually ordained. (His cause for sainthood is now in process.) He served in southern Illinois and then Chicago.

And now that the United States faces a priest shortage, many dioceses have brought in priests from Africa, India, Central and South America and Asia. So, while African American vocations remain low, the number of African-born priests has risen. Today, of the three million African American Catholics living in the United States, only five are active bishops, 250 are priests, 437 are permanent deacons and 75 are seminarians in formation for the priesthood. On Oct. 25, Pope Francis announced he will create 13 new cardinals, including Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who will be the first African American cardinal from the U.S.

The history of discrimination is not easily undone. I can remember my grandmother telling me about some of her male classmates who tried to go into the seminary and were told to go to the Society of the Divine Word in Bay St. Louis, Miss., or were simply turned away. When someone in the family was treated this way, families and communities developed an attitude that was passed down through generations that you would not want your son to go through that, so in many ways, parents or families have not encouraged them to become priests.

By the grace of God, I did not have this experience. My two negatives of the seminary were on the part of the formation faculties and by outsiders trying to place cultural stereotypes upon me. When I did not fit those stereotypes, it was unclear to those in the formation process how I was to be dealt with. The second negative experience was from an ignorant seminarian who used a racial epitaph. We are all individuals, and we have witnessed what stereotypes and ignorance can do to a society.

And so we see that race and prejudice have also affected the altar and the celebration of the sacraments. We pray for a continuing of the desegregation of all aspects of the church in our world today. And most especially, we continue our prayers for an increase of priestly vocations, particularly in the African-American community.

Father Anthony Chandler is the director of the vocation office in the Archdiocese of Louisville and pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church.

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