African Catholics celebrate their heritage of saints in Maryland

By Judith Mbuya

Millions of Catholics around the world faithfully recite the Nicene Creed at Mass every Sunday to profess their faith in God and the Trinity. That steadfast declaration is widely shared among Orthodox and many Protestants as a unifying tenet of Christian belief. But it’s a safe bet to say that most Catholics have never even heard of the saint who first wrote that creed.

It turns out that distinction belongs to St. Athanasius, an African bishop who died in 373, according to Bishop John Ricard, SSJ, who revealed the surprising detail on June 1 during a homily for the Celebration of Saints in Africa at the Church of Resurrection in Burtonsville, Maryland. The day-long celebration included a rosary procession, praise and worship, Mass and a reception. It was hosted by the parish’s Cameroonian community and sponsored by the African Catholic Association (ACA).

Telling about 300 African Catholics in attendance that they “come from a very long, noble line of saints,” the bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida, affirmed Africa’s storied contribution to the Church. “Africa has been part of the Church and the Church has been part of Africa,” he said. “The Catholic Church was firmly planted in the heart of Africa from the very beginning.”

That and other notable facts about the existence of at least 60 African Catholic saints­­—save for a few prominent saints such as Augustine of Hippo, Charles Lwanga along with his martyred companions in Uganda, and the more modern-day Josephine Bakhita — remain largely unknown by Catholics. And, the annual celebration of saints, which initially grew out of the Africa Day of Prayer event 11 years ago, was established to commemorate Africa’s rich heritage of culture and faith on or near the June 3 feast day of the Ugandan saints.

“This means a lot to me to see Africans from all over the continent celebrate our culture and faith. I love my African culture. I love my Catholic faith. And this day fortifies my faith and culture,” said Mary Kiganda, a parishioner of St. Nicholas in Laurel, who suggested that naming children in honor of African saints would be an effective way to get the word out.

Silver Spring resident Emira Woods said it’s incumbent on the Catholic Church to help raise awareness of African saints, using events like this as opportunity to educate all Catholics across parishes and help raise visibility of African Catholics in America. “We are here in significant numbers. We have to make sure our numbers count,” she said.

The goal of the regional association, which includes eight local African Catholic communities from countries such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Uganda and Kenya, is to promote awareness of the African Catholics in the Washington area and support their pastoral and other needs, particularly for newly arrived immigrants who may feel alone, isolated and unsupported and consider joining Protestant churches that remind them of their communities back home, said Bernadette Opon, the president of the African Catholic Association.

For African Catholics who’ve emigrated to the United States the process of adjusting to American culture for the first time can be quite challenging, and in some cases, detrimental to their Catholic faith. Having typically left behind a strong and vibrant, religious faith community and culture in their native countries, new Catholic immigrants are often faced with work and life demands that seem antithetical to the family-centered way of life they’ve known.

Touching upon the ACA’s theme, “United as African Family, We Journey Through Faith,” Sister Joanna Okereke — a Sister of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus who works on pastoral care of migrants, refugees and travelers at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — reiterated that the family unit is essential to the well-being of Africans. “Without family we disintegrate,” she said.

Lambert Mbom, liaison officer for the local Cameroonian Catholic community, said traditionally, the Communion of Saints has meant celebration of the extended family — living, dead and unborn. But the long, costly and arduous process of canonization effectively can make it prohibitive for Africans to be officially recognized as saints by the Catholic Church. Holy men and women in Africa should also get due recognition as saints, Mbom said.

On the 400th year anniversary of the first enslaved Africans brought to the United States, Woods pointed out the historic significance that a “son of Africa,” Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, is now the first African American to lead the Archdiocese of Washington, and that on June 15, Archbishop Gregory will ordain 10 new priests for the archdiocese, including Deacon Ebuka Mbanude, who was born in Nigeria.

“Africans stand firmly rooted in understanding that wherever we are on this planet, we are stronger as an African family; working together we bring mutual benefits for the continent. And we as African Catholics hold firm in our faith that God’s grace will deliver our people to better days,” she said.

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