Dennis Persica: African-American Catholics deeply shaped Louisiana

More than a decade ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Sister Eva Regina Martin, SSF, at that time the director of Xavier University’s Institute for Black Catholic Studies.

Sister Eva, who died last week, talked at length about the history of Catholicism in the New Orleans African-American community.

There’s been a lot of talk about “exceptionalism” in political circles lately, and the word seems overused. When it comes to African-American Catholics in New Orleans, noting their exceptionalism — that is, their uniqueness — is not overstating the case.

To begin with, part of that exceptionalism comes from our special Louisiana culture, thanks in part to the two centuries that Louisiana was ruled by France or Spain.

The treatment of slaves in French colonies, including Louisiana, was governed by the Code Noir, or black code, devised under Louis XIV in 1685. This was by no means a benevolent document. It was, after all, a codification of the rules for dealing with people who were considered property.

But right there in Article 2 was a provision that made all the difference for African-American Catholics in southern Louisiana.

“All slaves that shall be in our islands shall be baptized and instructed in the Roman, Catholic and Apostolic Faith,” the article commands.

Baptism, however, was only a foot in the door for black Catholics. Their faith did not exempt them from the scourge of slavery or the indignities of the Jim Crow policies that came after emancipation.

But Sister Eva believed that Catholicism provided a moral strain for African-Americans that survived through generations and directed their lives. They watched out for each other.

Free people of color, for example, saved the wages from the jobs they worked at so they could buy the freedom of relatives who were still enslaved, she said.

She also pointed to a tradition of philanthropy among many of the city’s better-off black Catholics. Thomy Lafon and Marie Couvent were shining examples of benefactors interested in the welfare and education of children.

Henriette Delille, the founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family, to which Sister Eva belonged, devoted her life to serving the needy.

She is considered “venerable” by the Catholic Church — that is, two steps away from sainthood. During the Civil War, the funeral of black militiaman Andre Cailloux, a Creole Catholic who died fighting for the Union side, became a rallying point for the city’s black residents.

Homer Plessy, Josephine Decuir, A.P. Tureaud and Ernest Morial all played major roles in battling the segregation policies that took root after Reconstruction, she pointed out. They all were Catholics of color.

The Code Noir delineated serious punishment for recalcitrant slaves, such as the death penalty for a slave who strikes his master in the face. That something so spiritual as the requirement for baptizing slaves is in that same document is impossible to comprehend.

Similarly, Sister Eva saw a silver lining, an unexpected benefit, in the deplorable fact that black Catholics were treated as second-class (or even worse) congregants in their own church.

In an allusion that seems appropriate to this Holy Week, she saw it as an example of the theological idea of “felix culpa,” translated variously as “happy fault” or “fortunate fall.”

Being forced to live separately gave black Catholics autonomy, she said.

“It gave them what they needed to come together and build their own community.

“And they did,” she told me so many years ago. “That’s why we’re still here.”

Dennis Persica’s email address is dpersica@theadvocate.com.