Who Is Black America’s Patron Saint?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Meet the black Sicilian whose image was used to convert slaves to Catholicism.

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St. Benedict of Palermo, reliquary bust, mid-18th century.

Church of Madre de Deus, Lisbon.

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 74:  Who was the patron saint of African slaves and their descendants?

President Obama’s recent visit with Pope Francis saw the unlikely pairing of two New World leaders at one of the Old World’s oldest seats of power. The route each man had taken to St. Peter’s Square—one as the first black president of the United States, the other as the Catholic Church’s first Latin American pope—was long on symbolism and part of a much longer history of race and religion flowing back and forth across the Atlantic. The sainted figure of one such story had his feast day last Friday, April 4, which also happens to be the anniversary of the martyrdom of our very own Black Baptist “saint,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968. The Italian black Catholic saint’s name was Benedict, of Palermo, Sicily, and he was the son of African slaves.

In life, Benedict was an ascetic healer who devoted his life to the humble teachings of St. Francis; in death, he was used by the Church and colonial European powers to convert African slaves to Roman Catholicism. But he was genuinely adored as a grassroots saint who also inspired black identity and pride. While he was not the first black saint in church history, he was the first to pass through the gauntlet of canonization after authority over  the process passed exclusively to the pope in Rome. In February 2013, The Economist magazine described Benedict as “the patron saint of African-Americans,” noting that “churches devoted to his name can be found as far afield as Buenos Aires, Bahía and the Bronx.”

The Life of Benedict

Benedict was born in San Fratello, Sicily, in 1524. His father, Cristoforo, was a devout Catholic known for teaching peasants to say the rosary; he also was a slave who helped manage his owner’s lands. It is unclear whether Benedict’s mother, Diana, was a free woman or a slave at the time of her son’s birth.  (If these circumstances surprise you, remember: Sicily is an island just across the Mediterranean Sea from the African continent, and the influence there of European powers, especially Spain, a slave-trading empire from the 15th century on, was considerable.) According to Giuseppe Carletti’s translation of Friar Jacques Allibert’s Life of St. Benedict Surnamed “The Moor” (1875), Cristoforo and Diana lived separately after their marriage to avoid the temptation of conceiving children who would be born into slavery, and, upon learning this, Cristoforo’s owner promised them he would free their first child.

Benedict’s current biographer Giovanna Fiume, author of a well-researched chapter on him in the 2006 book Saints and Their Cults in the Atlantic World, warns us, however, that the work of hagiographers (those who recount the lives and deeds of saints) should be approached with caution. While most sources assume Benedict was born free or became free, Fiume is not certain, because contemporary Sicilians often referred to him as “Santu Scavuzzu,” or “Saint Slave.” Fiume also believes that whatever siblings Benedict had remained slaves. 

Sometime in the mid-1540s, Geronimo (or Girolamo) Lanza, a nobleman-turned-ascetic, invited Benedict to join his “irregular Franciscan community” of lay hermits traveling across Sicily, as Alessandro Dell’Aira explains in his 2009 paper “St. Benedict of San Fratello (Messina, Sicily): An Afro-Sicilian Hagionym on Three Continents.” Seeing Benedict taunted in the fields where he was tending oxen, Lanza is said, in Carletti’s translated account, to have warned Benedict's tormentors: “You are ridiculing this poor workman, but in a few years you will hear something of him.” Lanza and his followers eventually migrated to Monte Pellegrino, where, after Lanza’s death, according to Carletti, Benedict was elected superior.

When, following the Council of Trent in 1562, Pope Pius IV mandated that hermits such as they enter into monastic life, Benedict chose the Franciscan Reformed Minor Observantines at Santa Maria di Gesù near Palermo, Sicily. Because Benedict did not take formal vows in the order, he remained a lay brother, serving as a cook in the monastery kitchen, where he was noted for his extreme devotion to the poor and to the Franciscan virtues that the church’s current pope embodies: wisdom, simplicity, poverty, humility, charity and obedience. 

Our old friend Joel A. Rogers (leaning heavily on hagiography) recounts Benedict’s wondrous deeds in the second volume of World’s Great Men of Color (1947, 1996). Not only was Benedict said to have turned down the advances of noble women, he apparently wore a tunic of palm-leaves beneath his outer robe and chose to live in a small-cell dwelling with a charcoal cross on the wall (an upgrade from the caves where he supposedly slept during long pilgrimages). 

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