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Kicking Off Black Catholic History Month with St. Martin de Porres

November is Black Catholic History Month in the U.S. Catholic Church. There is a rich, too-often ignored history of Black Catholics in the U.S.—a history that Partnership Schools are very much part of, as community institutions founded in some cases over a century ago in proudly Black neighborhoods of New York and Cleveland. 

As schools deeply invested in the future of Black young people, we look to inspiration from individuals and institutions in the past who transcended forces bent on dehumanizing our ancestors. We also look at Black Catholic history for cautionary tales—of how spiritual institutions who seek the ultimate fulfillment of human destiny have too often perpetuated social structures that are anything but Christ-like. 

After honoring the holy men and women who have carved a path before us on All Saints Day and All Souls Day, we kick of Black History Month on the Feast of St. Martin de Porres. Partnership-Cleveland founding director Rich Clark has a particular devotion to St. Martin—so much so that when he founded a Catholic high school, he named it St. Martin de Porres. Today, he shares that inspiration with us.

Rich Clark, Founding Director of Partnership Schools-Cleveland.

Saint Martin de Porres is a busy guy; he is patron saint of African Americans, barbers, racial harmony, radio, and social justice. Born in Peru in the late 1500s, his father was a Spanish nobleman and his mother an enslaved person of African or indigenous ancestry. His father was evidently disappointed by his dark skin and refused to acknowledge his son for the first eight years of his life. Yet St. Martin went on to serve his community powerfully as a Dominican brother.

When my Uncle Billy—my mother’s younger brother—came back from fighting in the Pacific in World War II, he had malaria, and after weeks of high fever was committed to Mattapan Hospital in Dorchester, Massachusetts. At that time, my mother was at Mass in Hingham, and an Irish priest spoke after communion on behalf of the sainthood of Blessed Marin de Porres.  He passed out holy cards and then passed the hat for the cause.

So my mom and dad spent weeks praying to Blessed Martin de Porres, and then my dad went to visit Uncle Billy in Mattapan.  Imagine a “mental institution,” and that captures Mattapan.  My uncle begged my dad to get him out, saying he’s not crazy but he will be if he stays here.  My dad calls the guard over and tells him he is taking his brother-in-law home, and in the 1940’s, I guess that was enough.  My uncle went on to have a beautiful family of four or five kids and a fulfilling life.

I have that holy card. In it, Blessed Martin—the first Black saint from the Americas—is white!

So it seems like one of the ways in which we are making a little bit of progress is in recognizing and embracing that Black and multiracial saints are just that.

My sister and brother both married Peruvians under completely different circumstances, and I first visited Peru when I was 17 years old.  We refer to this as Martin’s revenge!  My wife Moira and I even eloped to Peru and worked in the city of Piura for several weeks. And I met Fr. John Foley, S.J., in 1975, whose work is deeply rooted in Peru, and who founded the first Cristo Rey high school in Chicago.

When it came time to name the new Cristo Rey high school we started in Cleveland—one of the first ten in the country—we were looking for a location on the west side of Cleveland, in a predominantly Latino community, so we thought of a lot names honoring the Virgin Mary. But when we got the perfect place on the east side, in a predominantly Black community, we decided that the Peruvian son of a freed Black slave and a Spanish nobleman—St. Martin de Porres—was the perfect patron saint for our school.

Here’s what attracts me to Martin: he’s often pictured with a broom. No job was too small for him. Had a good knowledge of medicine at the time, including indigenous remedies, and he helped sick children, poor or wealthy.  The wealthy families paid for his services and he took that money, went to the market, bought food for the marginalized, and the cycle continued.

My favorite Martin story comes from when he was cleaning up the kitchen in the monastery. He hears someone come to the door and ask for help; the Friar who answers the door says no and gates the door.  A while later, Martin answers the knock and brings the man—who was covered with pustules—to his bed. He nurses him back to health over the next few weeks.  The Abbot later asks Martin, how could you let that man be in your bed?!  Martin responds: It is far easier to clean the sheets of my bed than to cleanse the stain on my soul if I had refused him.

He was buried in the floor of the clinic he had set up in the monastery, and I have knelt at his grave.

Compassion!  This is what inspires me.

Rich Clark is the Founding Director of Partnership Schools-Cleveland.