The journey from 1619 for the Catholic Church


Matthew Davis, director of the Life and Justice Ministries for the Diocese of Camden, recently interviewed Father Gerard Marable, co-pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Camden, about the year 1619, when slaves were first brought to North America. What follows is a slightly edited text of their conversation.

What is the significance of the year 1619 in American history and American Catholic history?

In 1619, we have the first recorded history of Africans being forcibly brought to the United States to an English colony.

Having read this article by Rev. Dr. David Daniels, III titled “1619 and the Arrival of African Christianity,” I was surprised to find out the Catholic connection to some of the first Africans brought here. Those Africans arriving here from present day Angola (in 1619), were quite possibility already Christian, and Catholic. The Portuguese had already brought Catholicism to Angola. (Dr. Daniels’ article describes a 1619 letter from Bishop Manuel Bautista Soares describing his anger that 4,000-plus African Christians were taken by “slave traders” from modern day Angola.) This changes the whole vision and portrayal of Africans who were enslaved here. They weren’t simply, as sometimes depicted, pagans and savages, and “uneducated” by European standards. The article by Dr. Daniels mentions that Africans served as priests (and one even as a bishop) in the 1600s in (modern day) Angola.

The first recognized black priest is not ordained in the U.S. until Augustus Tolton in 1886. There perhaps was a time when some Europeans moved from looking to Africans as people and then changed into viewing them as property. We see something similar with how immigrants are being viewed and treated as not (fully) human today.

I had the opportunity to go to slave ports in Ghana that were built by the Portuguese, who were, of course, Catholics. While I was standing in one of the chambers where they had men incarcerated, right above it was built a chapel where they would say Mass. I remember literally losing my religion in that moment.

To know that African Catholic roots in Angola are potentially a starting point for African-American Christian life in the United States can be a source of pride and ownership in both the country and the Catholic Church. Buried in this history are diamonds and brilliance from which (Black Catholic people) were able to maintain their dignity and pass on to us today.

Why is it important for us as Americans and Catholics to learn and reflect on what happened in 1619?

Shackles used during the slave trade are displayed at the Cape Coast Castle Museum in Cape Coast, Ghana, in this 2010 file photo. Established as a fortress for the trade of gold and other valuable resources, the castle was later used as a dungeon for holding slaves before their transfer to the Americas. It is estimated that around 1 million slaves were transported from what is now Ghana to the Americas between the 1600s and the middle of the 19th century. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

The American story is the ever-continuing struggle to create a more perfect union. It’s not a bad thing that the Union is not perfect. We are always moving toward that perfect union. I think it would be good to teach our history that way — how we treated Native Americans, the Chinese on the railroads, the Irish, African-Americans, the right to vote for women — all can be told as a succeeding movement toward our more perfect union.

Intentional national self-knowledge will enable us to not repeat the mistakes of the past. It would be good, I think, if our education system taught us that we have always struggled for this more perfect union and the heroes — male and female of this nation — are those who advanced the cause of “out of many, one.” We have made mistakes and when we acknowledge those mistakes, we can learn from them and become better Christians and better citizens. We can become the people we imagine ourselves to be.

What is the proper role of Church in racial justice and reconciliation?

The church can inspire, challenge, admonish and give example.

(One way) the church can contribute to racial justice and reconciliation is by finding the courage to (aggressively promote the holiness of) Black (American) Catholics in line for canonization: Father Augustus Tolton, Julia Greely, Mary Elizabeth Lange, Henriette Delille and Pierre Toussaint.  Some of them were born into slavery while others lived in its shadow. They were Catholic and remained Catholic despite the abuse of bishops, priests, nuns and laity. They became citizens despite laws that said they were not human. They became esteemed members of the church despite scandalous and abusive treatment they received from some fellow Catholics. By the power of their testimony they demonstrated courage, forgiveness, faithfulness, and service to their white brothers and sisters. To be raised to the honor of recognized saints would redeem the Catholic Church in America and in one act would address most of the issues with which we are dealing with in this country and around the world: immigration, women’s rights, trafficking, economics, white power, incivility.

To name churches after them, to have icons of them, to tell their faith story and hold them up in glory — this would revolutionize the vision of the Catholic Church in the United States. And then the connection to 1619. We can draw a line from the Black Catholics that are currently in the process for sainthood with these early African Catholics that came here in 1619. That is pretty profound and inspiring.