The history of the Catholic Church is inextricably linked with Africa. The first Gentile convert mentioned in the New Testament was an African. Three of the church’s first 50 popes were from the continent. Countless Africans are among the martyrs and early saints of Christianity. In the United States today, there are an estimated 3 million Catholics of African descent.
Yet the church has yet to include a single African American among the pantheon of more than 10,000 men and women it has recognized as saints. There are currently six African Americans on the road to possible canonization, a long and arduous process that generally requires proof of at least one miracle. Two of those people were born overseas — one in Cuba and the other in Haiti — while the rest were either from the Deep South or Missouri. Three of them were born into slavery.
Soon, their group could grow by one if a campaign to canonize a Massachusetts-born priest gains momentum. Meet Father Martin Maria de Porres Ward, the world’s first African American member of the Conventual Franciscans, one of multiple branches of an order that St. Francis of Assisi founded during the Middle Ages.
The story behind Ward’s journey from Boston to Brazil, where he served most of his priesthood, tells us much about the plight of African American Catholics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the US church was not much more welcoming to Black people than the rest of Jim Crow America.
Ward lived in an era when the very idea of Black priests was foreign to most American Catholics and outright repugnant to others. Though explicit racial bars have been dropped, there remains a dearth of African American seminarians in the United States. Today, I am one of only about 30 African American seminarians, and turnover is high: At least eight left seminary by the end of the 2021-22 academic year.
Altogether, there are only about 250 African American Catholic priests today, meaning that many of the largest Black Catholic communities, which exist in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, as well as in rural Mississippi and Louisiana, are served by non-Black priests.
For Black Catholics, whose experience of the faith in the United States has often been fraught with identity crises, racism, forced assimilation, and exclusion, the divine call of the priesthood can sometimes feel like an invitation to psychological self-harm. Surely Ward felt that sting to a degree I will never know. But I can also understand what may have drawn him to the church.
Ward was born in 1918 in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston to a white father and Black mother. Though reared a Methodist, he was introduced to the Catholic Church by a friend after moving to Washington, D.C., according to Brother Douglas McMillan, a living African American member of Ward’s religious order.
Though we don’t know exactly what attracted Ward to the church, he converted and received his first communion in 1937 at historic St. Augustine Catholic Church, commonly described as the “mother church” for Black Catholics in the nation’s capital.
After only two years as a Catholic, he entered seminary with the Salvatorians, though a medical condition forced a quick exit. Then came a short stay in Brooklyn, where he applied to the Conventual Franciscans. He was soon whisked off to upstate New York, where he was ordained in 1955 at the cathedral in Albany.
Before his ordination, Black men had largely been barred from Catholic seminaries in North America. There were a few exceptions, however. In the mid-19th century, James and Sherwood Healy, biracial brothers from Macon, Ga., slipped into the ministry in the Diocese of Boston by pretending to be white. Patrick, a third brother who also hid his Blackness, became a famous Jesuit in Washington, D.C. Augustus Tolton became the first openly Black American priest when he was ordained overseas in 1886. Several others followed, mostly in religious orders.
Even so, most US Catholic bishops remained steadfastly opposed to allowing Black men to minister in their dioceses. Black seminarians were left with few options: Leave the seminary, serve outside of parish life in the US, or serve in another country where Blackness was less of a black mark.
By Ward’s time, racial prohibitions in Catholic seminaries had begun to soften, but it was still rare that a Black man could find an assignment in a Catholic parish in the United States. So Ward chose to volunteer for the Conventual missions in Brazil shortly after his ordination. He had been assured years earlier that the order would have a suitable assignment somewhere for an African American (and almost certainly far from home).
Like Ward, I was raised for much of my youth as a Black Methodist. But in my late 20s I began a theological journey, reading widely and becoming enthralled with early Christian leaders who happened to be Africans: Augustine, Monica, Athanasius, Moses the Black, Cyprian, Origen, Tertullian. One of the first saints I studied was Anthony of Egypt, a desert-dwelling monk from the fourth century who founded an order of monks. He became a model of faith for me, who until then had only thought of monks as European men dressed in choir robes.
As I discovered these holy figures, I also learned to my surprise that my deceased maternal grandparents were Catholics — a reality hidden from me because my mother was adopted and only hazily aware of her biological parents’ backgrounds. It was as though I were beholding neon signs from the heavens. Within nine months of my first explorations, I had converted. And soon enough, I found myself drawn to the priesthood.
Becoming part of an unbroken tradition dating back millennia was a salve for me, after I had spent years searching for answers in the Bible. The Church may not have always supported the rights of Black people, but it provided a spiritual home, a place where I found camaraderie with other Blacks who felt the same tug.
One of the few extant mentions of Ward in history books is the independently published “Black Catholic Men of God,” written by Father George Clements of Chicago and released in 1975.
By then, a good number of African Americans had joined the ministry stateside, and an advocacy group, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, had been formed. From their inaugural meeting in 1968 came one of the most forceful statements in history concerning the interaction of the Catholic Church with Black Americans, famously stating that the US church was a “white racist institution.”
When “Black Catholic Men of God” came out, Ward had been in Brazil for roughly 20 years. The book includes a scant three sentences on him, describing him as a Black pioneer in the region from Goiatuba to Andrelândia, northwest of Rio. (Ward, who died in 1999, is buried at the school where he taught in Andrelândia.) He was a friend, pastor, educator, chaplain, and promoter of vocations for his flock, all in a language not his own. My attempts to contact living family members were fruitless.
Beloved in Brazil, Ward remains virtually unknown in his native land. This could make sainthood for him — promoted by Friar Julian Maria Zambanini in the United States and Friars Robson Malafaia Barcellos and Marcelo dos Santos Silva in Brazil, all members of his order — even more difficult than for better-known African American candidates, including Pierre Toussaint, a formerly enslaved Haitian American who became a philanthropist who opened his home to orphans and nursed people with yellow fever.
Yet none of the six African Americans currently up for canonization have even been beatified, the penultimate step toward sainthood, which is conferred by the pope. Beatification usually requires proof of a miracle and, pending documentation of a second miracle, can be followed by sainthood.
I am not aware of any confirmed miracles associated with Ward. But some Black Catholic voices assert that the Black Catholic experience in the United States is itself miraculous, imbued with perseverance, faith, and good works despite terrible obstacles.
It seems worth noting that Bishop José Eudes Campos do Nascimento of the Diocese of São João del Rei, where Ward served in Brazil, gave permission for the Conventuals to investigate Ward for sainthood in June 2020.
This was the same month that George Floyd’s killing prompted massive protests across the nation as many Americans demanded a reckoning with anti-Black racism.
Perhaps the timing was right, then, for the consideration of a new African American Catholic saint. Perhaps it ought to be a man born in Boston and uniquely reborn as a minister in Brazil.
Nate Tinner-Williams is a seminarian with the Josephites, studying at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He is also editor of Black Catholic Messenger.