By Brian J. Lowney
Brown, the assistant superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Providence, R.I., is the author of "African Saints, African Stories: 40 Holy Men and Women" (St. Anthony Messenger Press, $14.95), which profiles ordinary men and women who lived extraordinary lives.
"I discovered that the saints were everyday people just like us," Brown told Our Sunday Visitor. "They had struggles and disappointments. They realized they had God's grace that helped to overcome their struggle."
"That leaves hope for us," she said. "We have a chance to obtain God's grace. We have a guide, which is the Gospel. That's the exciting part."
While the book discusses the compelling lives of 40 people called by God to live holy lives, there are 600 notable Catholics of African descent whose stories are seldom told. These individuals are listed in a compendium at the end of the book to allow readers to conduct additional research on the history and development of Catholicism in Africa to the present day.
The book includes profiles of several notable American black Catholics, including Mother Emma Lewis, a respected catechist and lay leader, and Dr. Lena Edwards, a physician and philanthropist.
The African men and women included are declared saints, blesseds or venerables in the Catholic Church, as well as what Brown describes as "saints in waiting." This latter group includes individuals who have not yet received official recognition from the Church.
"This book gives voice to people who have made great contributions to the life of our Church," Brown said.
"Most Catholics know about St. Martin de Porres from Lima, Peru, or mistakenly believe that St. Peter Claver was of African descent, as he served and evangelized the slaves," she writes in the introduction. "Though they were certainly great men of their time and a gift to Holy Mother Church, identifying them as the only African saints is an academic and spiritual error."
Brown, who is also an adjunct professor at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Pennsylvania, said the book is a result of an article she wrote several years ago for the National Black Catholic Congress website, and a course on African saints she created and taught at the seminary.
It took nine years to complete the research for the exhaustive project and two years to write the book.
"I learned patience in writing this book," Brown said, adding that she conducted research in Egypt, South Africa, Ethiopia and several other African countries, as well as in Italy.
Brown introduces these holy men and women with a well-researched biographical history, a passage from Scripture relative to the life of the saint, an original prayer, and a reflection with questions that ask readers to examine their own lives and consciences and follow these devout individuals to a life of holiness.
One of Brown's favorites is St. Moses the Black, who the author refers to as "the outlaw saint." Born in Egypt, this renegade-turned-monk lived from 330 to 405.
"He was certainly a villain," she said. "He was notorious for getting into fights. He was not your ideal Catholic person at all."
While much is known about Moses' life of crime, little has been recorded about his powerful conversion. It's believed that he observed some monks in the desert of Skete and appreciated their love and peaceful demeanor. He soon embraced a life of prayer, devotion and brotherhood in the tranquility of the quiet desert.
"St. Moses the Black became well-respected," Brown said. "He was regarded to have great wisdom."
"His life is one that we can line our lives up to" as a role model to others who seek a life of conversion and prayer, she said.
"He discovered the risen Lord," Brown said. "I don't know if he was trying to make up for his terrible transgressions, but he dedicated the rest of his life to the Lord."
St. Moses the Black died at the hands of invaders who raided the monastery where he was living. As the raiders approached, he encouraged the other monks to flee. A few stayed behind and joined Moses in martyrdom.
One notable chapter in the 145-page book discusses the life of St. Josephine Bakhita (1868-1947), a Sudanese slave who was brought to Italy to work as a nursemaid for a wealthy family. When her owners moved to another part of Italy to deal with business matters, they entrusted the domestic worker and a small child to the temporary care of the Canossian Sisters of Charity in Schio, outside of Venice.
When the family returned, Bakhita refused to go with them; and because Italy had outlawed slavery, she was free to join the religious community, where she was given the name Josephine. The devout religious sister worked in the convent for more than 50 years, performing domestic chores and serving as the porter.
Sister Josephine Bakhita always embraced the poor and suffering who came to the convent door, and was called "Our Black Mother" by the townspeople.
"She was known for her great faith," Brown said. "People believe that her prayers spared the town during the war."
She noted that when the future saint died, mothers brought their children to her casket and placed her hands on their heads to invoke her protection and God's blessing.
St. Josephine Bakhita was canonized on Oct. 1, 2000, by Pope John Paul II.
Brown has established The Bakhita Fund to honor the saint. The nonprofit organization raises money to purchase school supplies, clothing and sports equipment for impoverished children living in Benin, Ghana and Nigeria. She travels every summer to Africa to visit with the fund's recipients and to distribute supplies.
Brian J. Lowney writes from Massachusetts.
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