On July 24, 1990, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States established November as Black Catholic History Month. They chose November because of the amount of important dates to those of African descent. For example, Nov. 1 All Saints Day is the opportunity to learn about the saints of African descent. Nov. 2 on All Souls Day, we can remember all those Africans lost to cruel treatment in the Middle Passage crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. On Nov. 3, Martin de Porres became the first black American saint. Nov. 13 is the birth of St. Augustine in 354, the first doctor of the Church from North Africa. The first celebration of this month began in November 1990 in various cities throughout the United States with the celebration of St. Martin de Porres feast day.
During this month we ask parishes to study the history of Black Catholics in our nation and in our diocese. One of the things I found in our diocesan history is that Msgr. Nelson H. Baker was the first one to reach out to blacks who came to the Lackawanna area. Several thousand were brought here to work at the steel plant. Much of the information can be found in the Report of the Negro Apostolate in Lackawanna, NY. He reached out to teach them about the Catholic faith. Father Thomas A. Galvin, CSSR, was assigned to Our Lady of Victory Basilica under the direction of Father Baker. He was a huge help in the conversion of blacks. He documented a lot of this work and is part of the Report.
There were many people in the church and community that were very upset that Father Baker was ministering to blacks. He ended up having to teach them in the basement of the basilica. In the report, Father Galvin wrote, "Moreover, the sufferings, worriments, hardships, opposition, prejudice and persecution brought about by the enemies of the cause: the good will cheerfulness, patience, resignation, loyalty, faith and perseverance on the part of the catechumens; the poor accommodations and dingy class rooms down in the basement of the institution with their coldness and darkness and dampness; the fervor with which the prayers and singing of hymns and preaching of the Word of God were conducted all down in the cellar actually underground all convinced me that this apostolate was the will of God the same as was the evangelization of the first Christians in the catacombs of Rome. In fact, I called these classrooms "Father Baker's Catacombs."
Toward the end of Father Baker's ministry, it became so terrible that many blacks were forced to leave the area. In the report Father Galvin wrote, "Those who had been baptized and expelled from Lackawanna, like the first Christians fleeing to other countries, brought with them the light of faith and scattered the seed of Christianity among their colored brethren in other parts of the United States." He also wrote, "Of the 333 who were baptized, I myself baptized 285."
Take some time during National Black Catholic History Month to read the report. You can borrow from my Office of Cultural Diversity for information call 716-847-2217. Father Baker pray for us.