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.

St. Benedict of Palermo, reliquary bust, mid-18th century.
St. Benedict of Palermo, reliquary bust, mid-18th century. Church of Madre de Deus, Lisbon.

Yes, Benedict was illiterate, but he schooled his fellow Franciscans on the scriptures he had memorized; and, according to the hagiographers, he cured the blind, washed the feet of the poor, and was even reported to have hovered over an altar.  “Benedict was so holy,” Rogers writes, “that even the wolves would not touch him.” 

In this way, Benedict became something of a celebrity, attracting numerous visitors to the monastery—from the very rich to the very poor—seeking his consolation and aid, not least his prophetic and healing powers. A number of miracles attributed to Benedict center on the conversion of food scarcity to abundance; for this reason, he is often depicted holding loaves of bread in his arms. And he so detested waste, Rogers writes, in relating the legend, that “[o]nce, when he gently chided some novices for throwing scraps of food in the gutter and they laughed at him, to make them ashamed he seized a coarse wire brush and closed his hand so tightly over it that the blood streamed down.”

Benedict eventually was elected guardian of the friary in the late 1570s.  “[T]he more confused and mortified the Saint became,” Carletti writes in his translation of Allibert, “the more he vainly sought to fly this applause, the more did they cry aloud: Behold the Saint.”  Rather than cling to power, Benedict resumed his duties as cook after serving as the monastery’s vicar and novice-master.

He died on April 4, 1589, after several months of illness. If you believe Rogers, Benedict’s last words were the Christ-like, “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”  The date of his feast day, April 4, is the same day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.  We may think it took an intolerably long time for King to be honored with a federal holiday, but it took more than 200 years to canonize Benedict as an official saint of the Catholic Church. 

For Rogers, the story of Benedict all but ends here; for later historians such as Fiume, it was just beginning.

“The Ideal Slave”

Just three year after he died, Benedict’s body was moved from the monastery’s common burial ground to its sacristy.  According to Cartelli’s translation of Allibert, those who witnessed the 1592 transfer were astounded by the still “agreeable odor” emanating from Benedict’s corpse.  Two years later, the first inquiry into Benedict’s potential canonization came before the Archbishop of Palermo; 97 witnesses testified.  A key advocate was the merchant Giovan Domenico Rubbiano of Palermo, whose letters eventually reached King Philip III of Spain.

And with that, Benedict’s legend went global. 

The Spanish king ordered Benedict’s body moved again—this time from the sacristy of the monastery to the altar; he also had Benedict’s mummified corpse enshrined in a silver coffin.  Philip revealed in a letter his motivation: the transatlantic slave trade. “It has pleased the Lord to use this humble servant black of hue to assist the conversion of the Negro population of the Indies, which could not have happened except by divine decree,” he wrote, according to Fiume in an essay in Saints and Their Cults.  King Philip knew what he was doing—so did the church, which gave its permission to depict Benedict with shining rays and a crown on his head well before he was a saint.  For church leaders, Benedict was something of a public relations coup: a Franciscan lay brother who looked like the African people they were trying to convert—and control.

As the cult of Benedict spread, so did observers’ awareness of the paradox between his exalted status and slavery.  To resolve it, they further emphasized the power of conversion in turning his  black soul white.  “[A]lthough black,” the Spaniard Antonio Daça wrote in 1611, as quoted by Fiume, “he [Benedict] was the white man of all the spiritual men of that era.”  A year later, Spanish playwright Lope de Vega authored his comedy El santo negro Rosambuco de la ciudad de Palerm, loosely based on Benedict’s life; in it, an Ethiopian prince is made a servant, converts and changes his name before a statue of St. Benedict of Nursia (the white abbot), and goes on to perform several miracles, including resurrecting his dead master and performing an exorcism on a possessed woman.  According to an essay by Victor Stoichita in The Image of the Black in Western Art:  From the “Age of Discovery” to the Age of Abolition: Artists of the Renaissance and Baroque, de Vega wrote, “[A]lthough you are black, the day will come when you are beautiful, handsome and white.”