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Black Saints of the Catholic Church

Information compiled by Deborah Grant and Kathy McGinnis

St. Anthony the Great

He is often depicted with a Tau-shaped cross, a pig and a bell. In the Middle Ages the belief arose that praying to St. Anthony would effect a cure for ergotism, a type of skin inflammation now also called "St. Anthony's fire." An order devoted to caring for those afflicted with the disease, the Order of Hospitallers of St. Anthony of Egypt, wore the Tau cross and rang bells to beg for alms, and pigs belonging to the order were allowed to roam the streets freely.

St Anthony is the patron saint of animals, skin diseases, farmers, butchers, basket makers, brush makers, grave diggers, Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, Rome. Attributes: bell, pig, book, Tau cross and Tau cross with bell pendant. He died in 356 in solitude at the age of 105, and his feast day is Jan. 17.

Saint Anthony of Egypt
Saint Antonio Vieira

St. Antonio Vieira

Antonio Vieira was an African born in Portugal. When he was fifteen years old, he became a Jesuit novice and later a professor of rhetoric and dogmatic theology. He went to Brazil where he worked to abolish discrimination against Jewish merchants, to abolish slavery, and to alleviate conditions among the poor. On the 200th anniversary of his death in 1897, he was canonized.

St. Athanasius

St. Athanasius, the great champion of the faith and Doctor of the Church, was born in Alexandria about the year 296, of Christian parents. Educated under the eye of Alexander, later bishop of his native city, he made great progress in learning and virtue. In 313, Alexander succeeded Achillas in the Patriarchal See, and two years later St. Athanasius went to the desert to spend some time in retreat with St. Anthony of Egypt (of whom he later wrote a biography that popularized monastic life).

In 319, he became a deacon and was called upon to oppose the rising heresy of Arianism, which was to become his life's struggle.

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St. Augustine of Hippo

Saint Augustine of Hippo

St. Augustine's complete turnaround and conversion from a life of loose living and ambition has been an inspiration to many who struggle with a particular vice they long to break.

This famous son of St. Monica was born in Africa and spent many years of his life in wicked living and false beliefs. Though he was one of the most intelligent men who ever lived and though he had been brought up a Christian, his sins of impurity and his pride darkened his mind so much that he could not see or understand the Divine Truth anymore. Through the prayers of his holy mother and the powerful preaching of St. Ambrose, Augustine finally became convinced that Christianity was the one true religion. Yet he did not become a Christian then, because he thought he could never live a pure life. One day, however, he heard about two men who had suddenly been converted on reading the life of St. Anthony, and he felt ashamed.

St. Benedict the Moor

St. Benedict the Moor (also called Benedict the Black), a lay brother, was born in Sicily in 1526. He was the son of African slave parents, but he was freed at an early age. When he was about 21, he was insulted because of his color, but his patient and dignified bearing caused a group of Franciscan hermits who witnessed the incident to invite him to join their group. He became their leader. In 1564 he joined the Franciscan friary in Palermo and worked in the kitchen until 1578, when he was chosen superior of the group. He was known for his power to read people's minds and held the nickname of the "Holy Moor." His life of austerity resembled that of St. Francis of Assisi. He is the patron saint of African missions, African Americans, Black missions, Black people and Palermo.

His feast day is April 4.

Saint Benedict the Moor

St. Bessarion

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Bessarion was a native of Egypt and, having heard the call to perfection, he went into the wilderness, where he was a disciple first of St. Antony and then of St. Macarius. Rather than live under a roof he wandered about like a bird, observing silence and subduing his flesh by mighty fasting. His neighborly charity led him to a height of perfection that was manifested by miracles: he made saltwater fresh, he several times brought rain during drought, he walked on the Nile, he overcame demons. Like so many other desert fathers, St. Bessarion lived to a great age; and he was compared by his admirers with Moses, Joshua, Elias, and John the Baptist. St. Bessarion is named in the Roman Martyrology on June 17th, but his usual date in the East is June 6th.

St. Catherine of Alexandria

She was born in 287 in Alexandria, Egypt, was educated and of noble birth, possibly a princess. Around the age of fourteen, she experienced a moving vision of Mary and the infant Jesus, and she decided to become a Christian.Although she was a teenager, she was very intelligent and gifted.

At 18, she confronted Roman emperor Maxentius for his cruelty to Christians and outwitted him in the debate about worshipping false gods. Rather than order her execution, However, Catherine was moved by the power of the Holy Spirit and spoke eloquently in defense of her faith. Her words were so moving that several of the pagans converted to Christianity and were immediately executed.

Catherine herself was condemned to die by being stretched on the wheel, but her touch rendered the tortuous devise useless. The Emperor, enraged beyond control, then had her beheaded in 306. 

She is the patron of a great many professions and causes. Her patronage includes students, unmarried girls, apologists and many more as well as many places around the world. Her feast day is Nov. 25.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Charles Lwanga

St. Charles Lwanga and Companions

The Society of Missionaries of Africa (known as the White Fathers) had had built up a community of converts in Uganda who lived and taught at the royal court, where King Mwanga routinely forced himself on the young boys and men who served him as pages and attendants. 

After other Christians were martyred by the king, Charles Lwanga took over instructing the young Christian community – and the charge of keeping the boys and men away from the king. 

Mwanga demanded of the 15 boys and young men (all under 25) if they were Christians and intended to remain Christians. When they answered "yes," he condemned them to death. They were marched 37 miles to Namugongo, where those who were not killed along the way were burned to death on June 3, 1886.

St. Crispina

St. Crispina was held in high veneration all through Africa and was honored by St Augustine in various parts of his works, in which he speaks of her martyrdom. He especially praised her allegiance to God above material goods. She was a noble lady, a wealthy Roman wife and the mother of several children. 

When she found herself in danger of losing her children, her possessions, and her life, in the persecution which was then raging; instead of being intimidated, she was filled with a holy joy, not unworthy of the Christian education which she had received from her most tender years. Being arrested in her native city of Thagara by order of the proconsul Anulinus, and brought before his tribunal, he inquired of her whether she was aware of the imperial edicts which commanded that all persons should sacrifice to the gods of the empire. St. Crispina replied, “I have never sacrificed, nor will I sacrifice to any other than to one God, and to our Lord, Jesus Christ His Son, who was born and suffered for us...I adore my God and besides Him I know of no others.”

Crispina continued in her refusal to deny Christ and was tortured, publicly ridiculed and then beheaded.

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St. Cyprian

St. Cyprian of Carthage is second in importance only to St. Augustine as a figure and Father of the African Church.

He was born to wealthy pagans around the year 190 and was educated in the classics. Like St. Augustine after him, he questioned what truth was and searched for it in practicing law and rhetoric. He was curious about Christianity, and after much study he converted at the age of 56. He sold all his property and was ordained a priest a year later, and bishop two years after that.

His writings are of great importance, especially his treatise on "The Unity of the Catholic Church," in which he argues that unity is grounded in the authority of the bishop, and among the bishops, in the primacy of the See of Rome. 

He was martyred on Sept. 14, 258.

St. Cyril of Alexandria

St. Cyril of Alexandria, Doctor of the Church, is best known for his role in the Council of Ephesus, where the Church confirmed that Christ is both God and man in one Person.

In 430 he became embroiled with Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, who was preaching that Mary was not the Mother of God but only the mother of Christ the man – thereby denying Christ's dual nature as both human and divine. He persuaded Pope Celestine I to convoke an ecumenical council at Rome from June 22 to July 31, 431. 

During the rest of his life, Cyril wrote treatises on the Trinity and the Incarnation which helped prevent Nestorianism and other heresies from taking deep root in the Church. He was a brilliant theologian, and among his writings are commentaries on John, Luke and the Pentateuch, treatises on dogmatic theology, and letters and sermons. He died in 444 after serving as bishop for nearly 32 years. He was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1882.

His feast day is June 27.

Saint Cyril of Alexandria
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St. Frumentius

St. Frumentius helped in a great capacity to bring Christianity to Ethiopia. He was born in Lebanon and was shipwrecked in East Africa while voyaging on the Red Sea. Only he and his brother, Aedeius, survived.

They were taken to the king at Axum, Ethiopia and became members of the court. When the king died, the two brothers stayed on as part of the queen's court. She permitted them to introduce Christianity to the country, as well as opening trade between Ethiopia and the west.

Frumentius convinced St. Athanasius to send missionaries from Alexandria, and he was later consecrated as the bishop of Ethiopia. He converted many people to Christianity before his death in 380. He is the patron saint of Ethiopia. His brother, Aedeius, was also canonized. St. Frumentius’ feast day is Oct 27th.

St. Fulgentius, Bishop of Ruse

In Ruspe City Bizacena (now Tunisia), St. Fulgentius, bishop, who after being Attorney Bizacena, embraced the monastic life. During the persecution by the Vandals he suffered a lot because of the Arians and was exiled to Sardinia by king Thrasamund. He devoted the rest of his life to feed their faithful with words of grace and truth.

As a young man he held the position of procurator in the Vandal administration and was responsible for the collection of taxes. Later he felt a call to the religious life and decided to become a monk after reading Saint Augustine's Exposition on Psalm 36.

Retuming to the area, Fulgentius was named bishop of Ruspe, circa 508. King Thrasamund, an Arian, banished Fulgentius to Sardinia, Italy where he and other bishops were aided by Pope St. Symmachus . Fulgentius founded a monastery and wrote such eloquent defenses of orthodox Catholic doctrines that King Thrasamund returned him to his see, only to banish him again. In 523, Fulgentius returned to his see, where he set about rebuilding the faith. He died at Ruspe on January 1, 527.

Fulgentius
Josephine Bakhita

St. Josephine Bakhita

Josephine Bakhita, born in 1869, was a Sudanese-born former slave who became a Canossian nun in Italy, living and working there for 45 years.

She was known for her smile, gentleness and holiness. She even once said, "If I were to meet the slave-traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that did not happen, I would not be a Christian and Religious today."

She died in 1947, and in 2000, she became the first African woman to be canonized in modern times. She is the first person to be canonized from Sudan and is the patron saint of the country.

Her feast day is Feb. 8.

St. Katharine Drexel

Once declared the second American-born saint, and although she was not of African descent, St. Katharine Drexel, the foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, dedicated her life to the defense and promotion of Native and African Americans. Her family was part of the social and economic elite of America. Her father, Francis Anthony Drexel, shared ownership of an international banking empire, Drexel Burnham Lambert. Katharine's concern for the "Colored people" paralleled her concern for the Indians. Katharine purchased a sixteen hundred-acre tract on the James River near Richmond, Virginia, where she established St. Emma's Industrial and Agricultural Institute for young black men. On a piece of the land adjoining it, she had a school for black girls built, and named it St. Francis DeSales. Katharine's crowning achievement was the building of Xavier University in New Orleans, the first U.S. Catholic institution of higher education for African-Americans.  In 1935, she suffered a heart attack and after that rarely left the Motherhouse in Philadelphia. Coupled with a life of contemplation, she continued to fight for civil rights, funding some of the NAACP's investigations of the exploitation of black workers and organizing letter-writing campaigns to President Franklin Roosevelt.

Katharine Drexel
Martin De Porres

St. Martin De Porres

The only black saint from the Western Hemisphere so far, St. Martin de Porreswas born in Lima, Peru, in 1579. His mother was a freed slave from Panama, and his father was a Spanish gentleman who did not want him. Early in his life, he demonstrated humility, charity for the poor, a love for animals, and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. At the age of 11, he took a job as a servant in the Dominican friary in Lima and performed the work with such devotion that he was called "the saint of the broom."

In recognition of his devotion, his superiors dropped the stipulation that "no black person may be received to the holy habit or profession of our order" and Martin was vested in the full habit and professed solemn vows as a Dominican brother. Afterwards, he became more devout and more desirous to be of service, establishing an orphanage and a children's hospital.

St. Martin is the patron saint of social justice, racial harmony and mixed-race people. Attributes: dog, cat, bird and mouse, broom, crucifix and rosary. A close friend of St. Rose of Lima, he died on Nov. 3, 1639, and was canonized on May 6, 1962. His feast day is Nov. 3.

St. Mary of Egypt

April 1 is the feast of a little-known saint whose story demonstrates the power of the Church as the home of forgiveness, redemption and mercy. St. Mary of Egypt was a prostitute for 17 years before she received the Eucharist and chose the life of a hermit.

Born in 344, she moved to Alexandria when she was 12 to work as a prostitute. With the intention of plying her trade, she joined a large group making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. On the feast day itself, she joined the crowd as it was headed to the church to venerate the relic of the True Cross, again with the intention of luring others into sin. When she got to the door of the church, she was unable to enter. A miraculous force propelled her away from the door each time she approached. After trying to get in three or four times, she moved to a corner of the churchyard and began to cry in remorse.

Then she saw a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She prayed to Mary for permission to enter the church for the purposes of venerating the relic, and she promised her that if she were allowed to enter the church, she would renounce her sinful ways.

Mary of Egypt
Maurice

St. Maurice

St. Maurice was a member of the Theban Legion, a Roman legion said to have been constituted by Christian soldiers from Africa, which was called to put down a revolt in Aaunum, located in modern-day Switzerland, in 287.

Two legends exist about the martyrdom of St. Maurice and his companions. According to the legends, the legion's soldiers were either ordered to take part in pagan sacrifices or ordered to harass and kill some local Christians. In either event, the 6,600 men of Maurice's legion refused. In punishment for their disobedience, every 10th man in the legion was killed. When the remaining soldiers, fortified by St. Maurice, still refused, other legions were called in to force them to follow their orders. Persisting in their refusal, they were all massacred.

His feast day is Sept. 22.

St. Monica

Raised a Christian, St. Monica was married off to a much older and violent-tempered official in North Africa who was a pagan. His mother lived with them and was equally difficult, which proved a constant challenge to St. Monica. She had three children: Augustine, Navigius and Perpetua. Through her patience and prayers, she was able to convert her husband and mother-in-law to the Catholic faith in 370. Her husband died a year later. Perpetua and Navigius entered religious life.

St. Augustine was much more difficult, as she had to pray for him for 17 years, begging the prayers of priests who, for a while, tried to avoid her because of her persistence at this seemingly hopeless endeavor. One priest did console her by saying, “It is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish." This thought, coupled with a vision that she had received, strengthened her. St. Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose in 387. St. Monica died later that same year, on the way back to Africa from Rome. She is the patron saint of wives and abuse victims. Her feast day is Aug. 27.

Monica
Moses the Black

St. Moses the Black

St. Moses the Black was a thief, murderer and adulterer who through the grace of conversion was transformed into a pacifist, priest and martyr.

Born in 330, he was a slave of a government official in Egypt who dismissed him for theft and suspected murder. A large, imposing figure, he became the leader of a gang of bandits who roamed the Nile Valley spreading terror and violence. Attempting to hide from authorities, he took shelter with some monks in the desert near Alexandria. The dedication of their lives, as well as their peace and contentment, deeply influenced him. He gave up his sinful ways and joined the community. While he struggled a long time with monastic discipline, he became renowned for his mercy and zealous love of God and neighbor.

At some point, he was ordained a priest and became the leader of a colony of desert hermits. At about age 75, about the year 407, word came that a group of renegades planned to attack the colony. The brothers wanted to defend themselves, but Moses forbade it. He told them to retreat, rather than take up weapons. He and seven others remained behind and greeted the invaders with open arms. All eight were martyred by the bandits.

St. Moses the Black is the patron saint of Africa and non-violence. His feast day is Aug. 28.

St. Pachomius

Pachomius first started out as a desert hermit, like many other men and women in the third and fourth centuries who sought the most radical expression of Christian life. There he developed a strong bond of friendship with the hermit Palemon. One day during prayer, he had a vision calling him to build a monastery. He was told in the vision that many people who were eager to live an ascetic life in the desert, but were not inclined to the solitary life of a hermit, would come and join him. Palemon helped him to build the monastery along the Nile River. Pachomius insisted that his cenobites were to aspire to the austerity of the hermits, but he knew that his idea was a radical one, because most of the men who came to live in his monastery had only ever conceived of the solitary lifestyle. His great accomplishment was to reconcile this desire for austere perfection with an openness to taking care of the mundane, day-to-day needs of community life as an expression of Christian love and service.

To aid the brothers in adjusting to a monastic life in community, he drew up a "rule" that was said to have been dictated to him by an angel. It is this rule that both St. Benedict in the west and St. Basil in the east drew upon to develop their better known rules of monastic community life. When he died in 346, there were 11 Pachomian monasteries: nine for men and two for women.

His feast day is May 9.

Pachomius
Peter Claver

St. Peter Claver

St. Peter Claver, S.J., was a Spanish Jesuit priest and missionary who was born in Verdú (Catalonia). Although not of African descent, he became the patron saint of slaves, the Republic of Colombia and ministry to African Americans due to his devotion and care of enslaved people. During the 40 years of his ministry in Colombia, it is estimated he personally baptized around 300,000 people. He is also patron saint for seafarers. He is considered a heroic example of what should be the Christian praxis of love and of the exercise of human rights.

St. Thecla

According to a popular 2nd century tale, "Acts of Paul and Thecla," she was a native of Iconomium who was so impressed by the preaching of St. Paul on virginity that she broke off her engagement to marry Thamyris to live as a consecrated virgin. 

Paul was ordered to be scourged and banished from the city for his teaching, and Thecla was ordered burned to death. When a storm providentially extinguished the flames, she escaped with Paul and went with him to Antioch. There she was condemned to wild beasts in the arena when she violently resisted the attempt of Syriarch Alexander to kidnap her, but again escaped when the beasts did no harm to her. 

She rejoined Paul at Myra in Lycia, dressed as a boy, and was commissioned by him to preach the Gospel. She did for a time in Iconium and then became a recluse in a cave at Meriamlik near Seleucia. She lived as a hermitess there for the next 72 years and died there (or in Rome, where she was miraculously transported when she found that Paul had died and was later buried near his tomb). The tale had tremendous popularity in the early Church but is undoubtedly a pious fiction and was labeled apocryphal by St. Jerome.

Her feast day is Sept. 23.

Thecla
Zeno

St. Zeno

St. Zeno was born in north Africa, in what is present-day Morocco and Algeria. He received an excellent classical education and in 362 was named bishop of Verona, Italy. He was active in missionary work, converted many, and fought the heresy of Arianism, which denied Christ's divinity. He built a basilica at Verona, founded a convent that he directed, encouraged charities in his people, and wrote widely on an ecclesiastical subjects, particularly the virgin birth of Christ. He died in 371.

Either because of his well-known hobby to fish in the Adige River in Verona, or because of his success in baptizing people in the faith, he is known as the patron saint of fishermen, and he is often depicted with a fish hanging from his crozier. His feast day is April 12.

Sts. Perpetua and Felicity

Just after the death of Pope St. Victor I, St. Perpetua and St. Felicity underwent their martyrdom in Carthage, around 203.

St. Perpetua was a young, well-educated noblewoman and mother living in Carthage in North Africa. Her mother was a Christian and her father was a pagan. Perpetua followed the faith of her mother. Despite the pleas of her father to deny her faith, Perpetua fearlessly proclaimed it. At the age of 22, she was jailed for her faith along with four catechumens including a slave named Felicity. While in prison St. Perpetua continued to care for her infant child and put up with tortures designed to make her renounce her faith. She remained steadfast until the end. 

St. Felicity, a slave girl who was eight months pregnant, was imprisoned with her. Only a few days before her execution, Felicity gave birth to a daughter, who was secretly taken away and adopted by a Christian woman from Carthage. The women were made to face a rabid cow as part of military games. The two women exchanged the kiss of peace and then stood side by side as all five martyrs had their throats cut.

They share the feast day of March 7 and their names are forever mentioned together in the Roman Canon of the Mass.

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