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?

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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.

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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). 

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.”

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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.

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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.”

In her entry on Benedict in the Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture, Fiume argues that Benedict quickly became the standard for “the ideal slave,” and his image “helped [Franciscan] missionaries in evangelizing the African slaves because he demonstrated the epitome of sanctity, centered on humility, obedience, and love between races and social classes.”  As one contemporary Franciscan testified (as quoted by Fiume in Saints and Their Cults) “the slaves for their part endure their harsh conditions more patiently, infused as they are with the honor which they bestow on their saint, in whose company they hope to draw near to Paradise by way of the road of suffering.” The saying among the faithful went, “‘May God fashion you in the likeness of St. Benedict of Palermo,’” Fiume quotes Fr. Alessio della Solitudine as relating.

Fiume points to the imagery of Benedict cradling the Baby Jesus in his arms and argues it was used to promote harmony between whites and blacks in the New World, but with a clear hierarchy of one group over the other: It “hinted at the need for love—in such a condition of racial disproportion as there was in colonial plantations and mines—between master and slave; the same way the black monk loved the white child at whom he gazed so adoringly, in this same way would the black wet-nurse love the white baby for whom she cared.”  In this way, you might say Benedict was a prototype of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s selfless hero, our very own Uncle Tom.

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Theater critic John Beusterian makes a similar argument in discussing the black saint plays of Lope de Vega and others in his 2006 book An Eye on Race: Perspectives from Theater in Imperial SpainBeusterian suggests these protagonists were the “nail” and the “nailed” insofar as they possessed “virility and self-will.” But they were also marked by “emasculation and servitude.” Moreover, in their exalted status, they were portrayed as having white souls and speaking in the language and diction of whites—as “vessels containing whiteness.” For this reason, Beusterian argues, as “revolutionary” as it was to see blacks approximate Christ onstage, it also was no coincidence “that the representation of Black saints accompan[ied] slavery and social institutions that perpetuate[d] skin color prejudice.”

A Grassroots Saint

This image of Benedict as the “ideal slave” was not easy to control, however; for, to the black-skinned women and men who beheld his image, he was one of their own, and in this way an inspiration of empowerment at odds with their forced removal from Africa to Europe and the Americas.  As early as 1609, the first confraternity in Benedict’s honor formed in Lisbon, Portugal; and it became one of many established on the Iberian Peninsula and in the New World. Just a few years later, a crowd of slaves in Lisbon was seen processing behind a standard of Benedict. To them, he was their patron saint and protector. And so the momentum for canonization kept building, with further attempts in 1620 and 1625-26.  Meanwhile, far away in North America, Benedict’s image was posted in a Franciscan monastery in Los Angeles (in what would become the United States); it was said to perform miracles.

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The relative ease of this process of conversion and identification reflected “syncretism,” Fiume explains.  The Catholic rosary and confraternities comfortably mapped onto pre-existing African objects, such as the traditional Yoruba divining instrument, which became known as a “rosary of Ifa,” the name of the system of Yoruba divination. A fusion of musical forms and rituals followed, with slaves and freemen adopting Benedict as their own, kneeling at his altar and hoisting statues of him on their shoulders during Holy Week processions. As one witness from Lima, Peru explained, relates Fiume, he liked to kneel at the altar of Benedict because “he was black like me.”  In turn, Fiume writes, these confraternities to Benedict instilled in “their members a feeling of pride and identity” and gave them “a base of resistance in the face of the more extreme forms of slavery and sometimes a screen for illicit or subversive activities and plans for escape.”

Once these confraternities took off, Fiume writes, the Catholic Church had fewer options to reverse course—only to delay. As one Franciscan testified, according to Fiume: “‘They [blacks] venerate this Saint [Benedict] so ardently that if this veneration were to be forbidden or repressed, this would cause widespread outrage and would arouse doubts about the other saints. The harm done [by removing his image from the altars] would outweigh the great goodness done by so many men who have preached and established the Catholic faith.’”  Among those harms was the prospect of slaves converting to the Protestant faiths of their English and Dutch neighbors (still a fear of the Catholic Church throughout Africa and Latin America today).

St. Benedict

Between 1625 and 1634, Pope Urban VIII issued decrees forbidding new cults to be formed in honor of those dead less than 50 years—unless they were “by the popular cult” (an exception that would include Benedict).  The pope also required cities to choose their patron saints only from the list of those already canonized, according to Dell’Aira, and the pope reserved the power to canonize exclusively in the Holy See. 

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But according to Fiume, none of this stopped the spread of the popular cult of Benedict in Portugal and Spain and their colonies in the New World.  In fact, despite the papal decrees, the Senate of Palermo made Benedict one of the city’s co-patrons (after St. Rosalia) in 1652. “Thus, a black man, the son of African slaves, became the most important protector of Palermo,” Fiume writes in Encyclopedia, “although he had not yet been recognized by the church as sanctified.”

Around the same time, “il Monrealese,” Sicilian artist Pietro Novelli, painted Benedict kneeling before an altar in his Franciscan robes holding two lit candles as St. Francis, hovering above, gives his rope belt to St. Louis, the King of France, also kneeling, with Pope Innocent III standing. The candles may refer to the miracle Benedict was said to have performed restoring sight to a blind nun; there is a trace of a halo over his head. (This painting remains in the Palermo Church of the Benedictine Badia Nuova.) Once again, Benedict “was represented in attitudes of sanctity in Italian and Spanish art well before his actual elevation to that position,” art historian David Bindman writes

Eventually, the elevation came. In 1713, with the transatlantic slave trade in full swing, the case for canonizing Benedict reopened “through the spread of the Latin American cult,” Dell’Aira explains.  Benedict was beatified on May 11, 1743. He was canonized “Saint Benedict” by Pope Pius VII on May 24, 1807 (the same year the British Parliament passed a law banning the slave trade), becoming the first black saint after the papal reforms of 1634 and 81 years before slavery was abolished in overwhelmingly black and Catholic Brazil.

Legacy

Victor Stoichita locates the story of Benedict within the broader paradox of the “white black,” as illustrated in the various artistic portrayals of him from the early 17th century on. One striking example of it can be seen in a grainy black-and-white photo in Giovanna Fiume’s chapter in Saints and Their Cults showing three Venezuelans honoring St. Benedict by painting their faces black for a feast in his honor.  The tension between Benedict’s symbolic power as the patron saint of slaves and a tool of Christian conversion lingers. 

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While blacks’ strong identification with Benedict loosened after the abolition of slavery in the West, it revived in the 20th century as “a visible instrument in society of religious and cultural identity among the African element throughout Latin America,” Fiume writes in Saints and Their Cults. Today, fraternal organizations to Benedict still exist in many places—Seville, Lisbon, Lima, Mexico City, Vera Cruz, Rio de Janeiro. There also are numerous Catholic churches named for Benedict in the United States, including in Milwaukee; Pittsburgh; Columbus and Savannah, Ga.; Omaha, Neb.; Winston-Salem, N.C.; St. Augustine, Fla.; Washington, D.C.; and New York.  My favorite is the view atop St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church in Pittsburgh, where, dressed in white, Benedict appears to be more than a lay brother—perhaps even a pope.  According to Marylynne Pitz of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, this statue was meant to greet visitors to the historically black neighborhood known as the Hill District, but it “irritated [the playwright August Wilson, a Pittsburgh native] because its back” was to the community.

Trivia

For those interested, here’s some trivia to enjoy.

* According to Camille Brown, there are 701 black saints in the Roman Catholic Church.

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* The first black saint was the martyr Maurice of Egypt, an officer in the Roman Theban Legion (3rd century).  As we saw in our own Amazing Fact #3, Maurice was sainted in the early church, “long before the Pope reserved the right of the Holy See exclusively to canonize souls in 1634.”  Other prominent early black saints include St. Moses the Black of Egypt (ca. 330-405) and St. Elesbaan, King of Ethiopia (sixth century).

* The most well-known black saint is St. Martin de Porres of Peru—canonized in 1962 and the subject of an exciting new biography by Celia Cussen, Black Saint of the Americas: The Life and Afterlife of Martín de Porres.  De Porres was also the first black person from the Americas to be canonized (155 years after Benedict).

* The most recent black saint is St. Josephine Bakhita of Sudan—canonized in 2000.

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* The first African American to become a priest, Fr. Augustus Tolton (1854-1897), is now under review for canonization. Tolton was born the son of slaves in Missouri, studied for the priesthood in Rome and started a parish for black Catholics in Illinois.

* Also under consideration is Henriette Delille (1813-1862), a free woman of color who launched the Catholic order of the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans in 1842.

* According to the National Black Catholic Congress, there have been three African popes in the Catholic Church’s history. All predated Benedict of Palermo:  Pope St. Victor I (186-198 A.D.); Pope St. Miltiades (311-314 A.D.); and Pope St. Gelasius I (492-496 A.D.).

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* There are 270 million Catholics of African descent today, according to the NBCC; they make up a quarter of the church’s followers and live in 59 different countries.

As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.