Published March 30, 2006
With his gentle wisdom and a passionate knowledge of his subject, Father Cyprian Davis brought a living history lesson to a congregation gathered at Sacred Heart Church in honor of Black History Month.
In late February, Father Cyprian concelebrated a Mass along with Father T. J. Meehan, pastor of Sacred Heart, and several other priests of the archdiocese for the parish’s annual Black History Month celebration.
Father Cyprian, a Benedictine monk from St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana, has written extensively of the history and spirituality of African-American Catholics in the United States, most notably in his book, “The History of Black Catholics in the United States,” published in 1990.
The son of teachers, Father Cyprian received a licentiate in sacred theology from the Catholic University of America in 1957 and a doctorate in history from the University of Louvain in Belgium in 1977. He is currently a professor of church history in the St. Meinrad School of Theology and a professor of history at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana.
In addition he has received honorary doctorate degrees from the University of Notre Dame, the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., and has taught all over the world including as a visiting professor at abbeys in Togo, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Nigeria.
During his presentation at Sacred Heart on Feb. 18, following the Mass accompanied by the St. Anthony of Padua Church choir, Father Cyprian spoke of several notable black Catholics, a few of whom had roots in Georgia.
“People don’t always think of Catholicism, much less of black Catholics in colonial Georgia, but the registry of St. John the Baptist Cathedral of Savannah is very interesting,” he said.
He noted that the second entry for baptisms in the registry at the church was that of a black slave. Several entries were those of slaves who had “Catholic owners,” as well as several “free blacks who were Catholic.”
Father Cyprian spoke of Matilda Beasley, who “risked prison by teaching black children and ministering to their needs.”
“Mother Matilda” Beasley went on to form the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, the first community of African-American sisters in Georgia in the late 1800s.
Elizabeth Barbara Williams, a native of Baton Rouge, La., also began a religious order, the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary in Savannah. Father Ignatius Lissner, AMA, had established three mission schools in order to teach black children in Savannah and asked Williams to start her congregation there.
The order eventually moved to the Harlem section of New York City, Father Cyprian said, where they gave up everything to serve the poor.
“I interviewed many of these sisters and they were literally hungry, terribly hungry and often went to bed without food,” Father Cyprian said.
He then spoke of Llewellyn Scott, a man Father Cyprian had known when Father Cyprian was a teenager. In 1935, Scott founded the Blessed Martin De Porres Hospice, where he offered shelter and meals to the homeless in Washington, D.C. He was inspired to begin the hospice after hearing a talk from Dorothy Day, who gave him $5 to start the project after Scott told her about it.
Very concerned about racial segregation, Scott marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Father Cyprian said.
“To my young eyes it seemed very funny because he was a man so simple, a man with nothing pretentious about him,” he said. “I had no idea he touched millions of lives.”
At a reception following the event, many shared their excitement in the history lesson they’d received.
“He talked about people very few of us had ever heard of before, and I know it inspires me to do further research,” said Lyn Vaughn, a Sacred Heart parishioner.
Anita Jeanne, a parishioner of St. Paul of the Cross Church in Atlanta, called Father Cyprian’s talk “enlightening.”
“I really did not know a lot about black Catholic history,” she said. “It makes me grateful that so many paved the way for me. I feel indebted to them. It shows that everyone can help to make the world a better place, whether black or white.”
Catherine Tarbox said she liked hearing about “four people you wouldn’t normally hear about” and appreciated the diverse crowd who attended.
“If we’re truly a universal church, we need to know that there are different ways of looking at things. We can’t just stay in our own little world.”