But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Acts 1:8
Today was the annual pilgrimage of the North City Deanery Interracial Relations Committee. This year’s pilgrimage took us to the Shrine of St. Joseph in downtown St. Louis. This magnificent church is the site of the second Vatican approved miracle for the canonization of St. Peter Claver who was a Jesuit priest. He is the patron saint of enslaved people, the Republic of Colombia and ministry to African Americans. From the Shrine we processed to the site of the first St. Francis Xavier “College” church in St. Louis where enslaved Africans were allowed to worship in an upstairs chapel. It was at this site that we heard the story of Matilda.
It seems that in 1823 the Jesuits came to St. Louis from Maryland to expand their mission, and brought six enslaved people with them. Matilda’s parents were two of the enslaved. Matilda labored as an enslaved person at St. Louis College (now) University. In 1847 Matilda, listed as a colored servant, purchased her freedom and the freedom of her youngest son for the sum of $300. Matilda paid the money in installments to St. Francis Xavier College Church.
What caught my attention as I was listening to this story being told was the fact that one year after Matilda bought her freedom, she received the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation as a free woman and parishioner of the same Church that had enslaved her and her family.
As we processed on, I thought of Jesus walking the streets of Galilee and how people dropped what they were doing to follow Him. I was engulfed with sadness and hope as I remembered stories my grandmother had shared with me about people like Matilda. I would like to think that even though they were enslaved, they felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in the people they encountered. I would like to believe they felt the presence of Jesus walking the dusty streets of St. Louis. I would like to believe they understood that we are all children of one God however misplaced the actions of some are. I believe Matilda did. Today I hope that the people who see us retracing the history of African American Catholics in St. Louis feel the presence of our Lord and Savior and come to believe that we are witnesses to His love for all. I walked today where Jesus walked. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5irhNWG8G8c
Beautiful, thoughtful reflection on this important moment of church history. And I haven’t heard Larnelle Harris in many years…what gifted voice.