In Search of Saint Martin de Porres (Part 2 of 3)

Posted on June 29, 2011 by


by Beatrice M. Hogg

Read Part 1 here.

While I was still in grade school, several changes came to St. Elizabeth’s and Catholicism in general. Now Mass was said in English, instead of Latin. We were all given little brown books that contained the entire English Mass, as well as the most common church hymns. No longer could I carry my Missal, which looked like a little Bible. I did not like this brown book. It looked like a school book, not a church book. Then I found out that my beloved Father Hoppel was going to be replaced by a new priest, Father Gibson. For years, Father Hoppel’s friendly personality had made me feel welcome and included at St. Elizabeth’s. Not only did he come to my house to visit, but Momma and I used to go to the Rectory to visit him. He always stopped to talk to me, even if I saw him at the store or on the street. Father Hoppel was my priest, my confessor and my friend. Maybe he understood what was like to be different from everybody else.

From the moment that I saw him, I did not like Father Gibson. He was quiet and hard of hearing. Where Father Hoppel had been friendly and outgoing, Father Gibson was distant. He never really smiled; he just turned up one corner of his mouth to an expression that could be mistaken as a grimace. But he was not the only one who was distant. When I was younger, I had spent a lot of time with my Sunday School classmates. Because we had grown up together at St. Elizabeth’s, we had shared a bond. But as we got older, that bond seemed to disappear. Most of them stopped speaking. The black kids made fun of me because I went to a white church. I started to wonder if I was the only Black Catholic in the world.

One Sunday, I came across a little booklet in the church vestibule. But this booklet had a picture of a black man on the cover. Who was he? The cover stated that the man was a Catholic saint, St. Martin de Porres. I used the extra money in my purse to buy the booklet. I couldn’t wait to get home and read it.

As soon as I got home and changed from my church clothes, I started reading the booklet. Not only was St. Martin de Porres a black saint, he was a Western Hemisphere saint. All of the saints I had heard about up to that point were from Europe. This saint was born in Lima, Peru in 1579. His black mother was from Panama. His white father was a Spanish nobleman who did not marry his mother. St. Martin went to the Dominican Friary in Lima as a teenager and stayed there for the rest of his life. He performed miracles and helped the sick and the poor. His good works included founding the first orphanage in Lima and maintaining a hospital for cats and dogs. The booklet said that he could raise the dead and had even flown. How could that be possible? God must have really loved him, I thought. I was surprised to learn that he had been canonized not that long ago, on May 6, 1962. I had thought that all saints had been canonized centuries ago. It was exciting to think that saints were still being created today. His feast day was November 3, a few weeks before the feast day of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, November 19. After reading the booklet, I didn’t feel as alone anymore. I wasn’t the only black Catholic. There were even black Catholics who had become saints, who were prayed to by Catholics of every color. Maybe I would go to church and light a candle for this wonderful black saint on his feast day.

But the discovery of St. Martin de Porres was not enough to resuscitate the faith that was slowly dying. Having a booklet with a black face on the cover did not take the place of having other black people sitting in a pew next to me. The Black Cultural Revolution of the late sixties was in full swing, with rigid definitions of what was Black and what was not. I was made to feel ashamed of being a black Catholic. St. Martin de Porres wasn’t really black, he was Hispanic, and almost everyone in Latin America was Catholic, according to my geography book. Once, a Guatemalan nun had visited our church. She was the first non-white nun that I had ever seen. With her reddish-bronze skin and high cheekbones, it was obvious that she wasn’t black. Now that the white kids didn’t speak to me, I felt lonely at Mass. The families that prayed together no longer seemed like the solid foundations of the church. Now I perceived them as members of an exclusive club I would never be able to join. Even the familiar wooden crucifix above the altar couldn’t restore the feeling that I belonged here, no matter how many times I crossed myself or said the Rosary.

As time passed, I knew that I would not be studying for my confirmation. In the big white Catholic Bible that Momma had bought me when I was nine, I read, “Confirmation is the sacrament in which a baptized person receives the Holy Spirit, is strengthened in grace and is signed and sealed as a soldier of Christ.” That sounded like a big commitment. I did not feel that I could sign on as a soldier if I was not dedicated to the Holy Catholic Church. I could have joined the Baptist church, but I did not feel connected to it either. I liked to go there to hear the lively music, but the plain church and the black robed minister did not inspire me like the stained glass Stations of the Cross and the colored vestments that I was used to at Saint Elizabeth’s.

After a while, I stopped going to church. Momma did not pressure me to go, maybe because neither she nor Daddy ever went to church. The only time that I had ever seen both of them attend a church service was when they came to my First Holy Communion Mass. They had looked out-of-place― two lone brown faces in a pew at the back of the church. What were they thinking, as they observed the white faces around them? Could Momma have been anticipating the alienation I would feel as I got older? Maybe that was why she never said anything about my decision, even though I knew she had to be disappointed. Sunday mornings at home became another kind of ritual― a shared family time when we passed around sections of the Sunday paper and watched “Meet the Press.”

After my mother died when I was thirteen, I decided to go back to St. Elizabeth’s. Maybe I could find some comfort there, something that would fill the empty space in my heart. I know how badly Momma had wanted me to be a Catholic, so I thought I would give it another try. People were friendlier, as everyone knew about my mother, but I could not recapture the feelings I had felt as a little girl. It seemed like my mother’s death was the only reason that parishioners were nice to me. There was no Sunday School to connect me to the kids I used to know, as Sunday School ended with Confirmation, and I had not been Confirmed. They were no longer my religious peers. They had taken the sacrament that made them “soldiers of Christ,” even though I doubted if any of them had ever considered what that meant. They got Confirmed because it was what their parents, their grandparents, and their great-grandparents back in the Old Country had done.

I joined the church choir, which gave me something to do besides go to school and adapt to life alone with Daddy. In 1971, I went to the Golden Anniversary Mass at St. Elizabeth’s. I felt some of the old feelings come back, as I celebrated the history of the church. I was proud of my little church and I realized that I was part of its history. At the dinner after Mass, a girl named Angela asked me to sit at the table with her large family. She had always been one of my favorite people at church. Angela, who was a few years older, went out of her way to be nice to me. After Sunday school, we would spend a few minutes talking before leaving the church. She seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. Even now, members of her family still spoke to me when they saw me outside of church. They seemed to be close even when they weren’t at church. They were a handsome Italian American family, with their olive skin, dark brown curly hair, and big brown eyes. I was delighted to be invited to be included in this happy family on this special occasion. But when I sat down, Angela’s mother told me to move to the end of the table.

“These seats are for family only,” she said firmly.

I refused to look at Angela as I moved from the middle of the long table to a place at the end. The feelings of camaraderie that I had felt earlier vanished. I wanted to cry, but I held my tears. I wished that I could go home and tell Momma what had happened, but she wasn’t there. I knew that I would never be able to claim St. Elizabeth’s as my own ever again.

I continued to go to church sporadically for the next few years, but it felt like an obligation, not something that I wanted to do. As I got older and started to embrace feminism, Catholicism seemed out of touch and misogynistic. I started to dread going to church. While I held out the hope that there was a church where I would feel comfortable and welcome, I knew St. Elizabeth’s was no longer that church.

From the time that I was able to read, I had received the Pittsburgh Catholic, the weekly Catholic newspaper. I had never requested it, nor had I ever paid for a subscription. I assumed that some secret benefactor wanted to insure that I was kept informed of Catholic events in the diocese. One week, I read about a black Catholic Church located in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. St. Benedict the Moor Church was a large brick structure with a grand statue of the great black Franciscan monk perched on its bell tower. My excitement didn’t last long, though. Pittsburgh was more than twenty miles away. The Hill District was a tough inner-city neighborhood that my father would never allow me to visit. St. Benedict might as well been as far away as St. Martin de Porres, who I assumed was buried somewhere in South America. But by then, I knew that I could never fully embrace Catholicism. Once I started to ask questions, I could not erase the doubts in my mind. I would never be able to accept the Church’s history of misogyny, rigidity, and prosecution, no matter the color of the priests, saints and parishioners.

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