Remembering Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis

Father Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., a leader in historical studies of the African-American Church in the United States, died May 17. He was a monk of St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana, professor of church history at St. Meinrad School of Theology, and author of numerous books and articles.

The following interview appeared in the January/February 1999 issue of Catholic Heritage magazine.

A Black Catholic Historian Who’s Part Detective: Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis Has Faith That There’s ‘Always a Trace, Always Clues’

By Gloria Thiele

Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis is a bit of a detective. The author of “The History of Black Catholics in the United States” and founding member of the National Black Clergy Caucus, has learned to be resourceful when it comes to research.

“The accepted theory was that there were no sources out there,” he said, although “we know now that is not true.

“At Louvain University [in Belgium], where I studied, we worked under the principle that there was always a trace, always clues and evidence. We were taught to be as imaginative as possible. I credit a lot of what I’ve been able to do with that training.”

Innovation is the name of the game skilled historians play, said Father Cyprian, who holds a doctorate in historical science and spends the school year teaching at St. Meinrad School of Theology in Indiana, and who works as a professor of black Church history at Xavier University in New Orleans during the summer.

He offered an example. While researching the life of Henriette Delille, he couldn’t find the usual letters and papers an academic investigator relies on, so he approached the subject from another angle. “Sometimes it is necessary to go around and attack the area from the back,” he noted. In this case, one of his methods has been searching the records of New Orleans’ notaries, where people came to make legal and commercial transactions.

Sources for Black Catholic history are often difficult to find, Father Cyprian admitted, especially during the many years of slavery when the owners of plantations or households rarely listed the names of slaves in any census. Instead, they gave the number of men, women and children on their property.

However, the author went on to say, the local parishes may have kept a more detailed sacramental registry. “Those records usually gave the name, place of birth, status of parents (black, mulatto, free, slave) and sometimes the names of the godparents. All of a sudden you’ve got individuals!”

One of Father Cyprian’s biggest thrills is finding evidence of black Catholics in places where he didn’t know they existed. For instance, he discovered, unexpectedly, that America’s first black female sculptress, Edmonia Lewis, had been a Roman Catholic.

The historian said that by reading microfilm copies of black 19th-century newspapers, he has gained insight into the lives of many black Catholics. One of the most influential papers published for blacks was the American Catholic Tribune. He dreams of finding someone with a back copy.

Why does he spend so much time in research? “It is important to include black Catholic history in a history of the American Catholic Church because without it, it is a truncated history, a history that to a large extent is deformed. But for a long time that was the case. It was like talking about American history without mentioning Native Americans or Hispanics.”

The Benedictine priest sees the role of a black Catholic historian as one who “opens up a whole new territory . . . makes the past speak, highlights what has been hidden and retrieves a mislaid memory.”

But that’s not to say Father Cyprian is the first or only person to research and write about the history of black Catholics in America. In 1930, Josephite Father John T. Gillard published a comprehensive history of the Catholic Church and “the American Negro.”

A recent work admired by the Benedictine is Stephen Ochs’ “Desegregating the Altar: The Josephites and the Struggle for Black Priests, 1871-1960,” in which he tells the history of black Catholic priests and the decades of racism black men seeking ordination faced.

Father Cyprian would like to see more black Catholics researching their history. At Xavier University, he’s met many students who are interested in the challenge, but few who are willing to make the commitment that’s required.

Black Catholic history, he concluded, is a treasure that’s “just beginning to be mined.”

Gloria Thiele writes from Redmond, Wash.

Four Centuries of Black History

“Most people don’t realize how long black Catholics have been in this country,” said Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis.

There were black Catholics in St. Augustine, Fla., from 1565, he noted. They fought the English to defend the Spanish fort there.

And the first black soldier to die in the Civil War, Capt. Andre Cailloux, was a Louisiana Catholic.

But it’s not only the contributions of individual black Catholics that are important in historical accounts, he continued.

It’s the overall black Catholic story in the United States that’s noteworthy.

Slaves built much of the South with their physical labor, Father Cyprian said. Spanish- and French-speaking black Catholics created a rich culture with religious music and customs.

Then, too, he added, public service has been a major characteristic of black Catholic endeavors.

Last but not least, he said, are the courage, perseverance and holiness of black Catholic people who lived and worked in this country. They have been an essential part of the Church’s dramatic history.
— Gloria Thiele