Deferred Mission, The Josephites and the Struggle for Black Catholic Priests, 1871 - 1960

Thumbnail Image


1597707.pdf (152.8 MB)
No. of downloads: 12

Publication or External Link





During the last quarter of the nineteenth, and well into the twentieth century, St. Joseph's Society of the Sacred Heart (Josephites) carried the main burden of the Roman Catholic Church's meagre efforts among black Americans. The Josephites built churches and schools throughout the South and, more dramatically, pioneered in the ordination of black Catholic priests in the United States. The exclusion of all but a handful of black men from the Catholic priesthood had both symbolized and helped to perpetuate the second class status of blacks within the Catholic Church. Under their first American Superior General, the dynamic John R. Slattery (1893-1904), the Josephites defied prevailing racist ideology. They accepted blacks into their minor and major seminaries and raised three of them to the priesthood between 1891 and 1907. Unfortunately, however, the Josephites could not sustain their pioneering endeavors on behalf of a black clergy in the midst of deteriorating race relations in the United States after the turn of the century. Southern bishops refused to accept black Josephites into their dioceses. Slattery's successors as Superior General, especially Louis B. Pastorelli (1918-1942 ), lacked his faith in black leadership, shared some of the racist assumptions of American society, and found themselves dependent upon the support of southern bishops. They accomodated their ecclesiatical superiors and effectively closed the Josephite college and seminary to all but an occasional mulatto, thereby forfeiting credibility among an important segment of black Catholics. Leadership in the struggle for black priests passed to the missionaries of the Society of the Divine Word. Not until the election of Edward V. Casserly as Superior General (1942-1948), did the Josephites return to their original policy of recruiting black men for St. Joseph's Society. The struggle of the Josephites over the issue of black priests illustrated the depth of the institutional racism that pervaded the Catholic Church, the tendency of the Church to accomodate itself to prevailing regional and national cultures, the limits of Vatican influence over the American Church on sensitive social issues like race, and the determination of black Catholics to secure their own priestly spokesmen within the clerically dominated Catholic Church.