- Conversion Narratives: The Dual Experiences and Voices of African American Catholic Converts
My work in African American Catholic history began and continues today because of Father Cyprian Davis, O.S.B. and his revolutionary book, The History of Black Catholics in the United States. I learned about his book when I was interviewing for a scholarship from the Fund for Theological Education. One of the scholars who interviewed me was Dr. M. Shawn Copeland. When she found out I was doing my graduate work in U.S. Catholic history, she asked if I knew of Father Cyprian’s work. I had read several of his U.S. Catholic Historian articles but I did not know he had a book coming out soon that would be a comprehensive history of Black Catholics in the U.S. I left that interview hoping that I had won a scholarship and excited about what this book might contain. A couple of months later the book was on the reading list of a class I was taking on African American religion at the University of Virginia. Needless to say, I asked if I could lead the discussion on The History of Black Catholics in the United States. We read many fantastic books that semester but none was better than his. I had never seen a book that was at once so interesting, thought provoking, historical and spiritual at the same time. On top of all of this, each chapter closed with an invitation for the reader to continue the historical work.
Father Joseph A. Brown, S.J., one of our guest speakers that semester, taught English and African American studies at the University of Virginia. The seminar he led for our class was fabulous and during the break period I asked him if he knew of Father Cyprian’s work. Of course he did and he told me that I should look into studying during the summer with him at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans. I immediately made plans to do this. But that summer Father Davis was not going to be teaching at the Institute. Father Brown would be teaching, so I decided to go and to take a class with him. Little did I know that Father Cyprian would be on the campus while I was there and that I would get to meet him. [End Page 27]
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Father Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J., my major professor at the University of Virginia, encouraged me to write to Father Cyprian and tell him about my interest in writing on a Black Catholic topic for my dissertation. I did write a letter, but I did not hear from him. So, when I heard that he was on the Xavier campus I decided to camp out in the lobby of the Institute dormitory, St. Joseph Hall, until I was able to see him. My patience was rewarded and I got to talk with Father Cyprian for about half an hour about possible topics for my dissertation. He asked me what time period I was interested in and what kinds of issues. I told him I wanted to do something related to Catholic educational history in the early twentieth century. I needed to do research on a topic that had archives that would be accessible to me by train as I did not have a car or drive. Taking my interests and needs into consideration, he offered me two suggestions. The first was a history of the foundation of the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary. He told me they were primarily a teaching order of African American women religious founded in the early twentieth century. The second suggestion was a history of the Cardinal Gibbons Institute in Ridge, Maryland in the 1920s and 1930s. He told me that something that made this topic particularly interesting was that it was a Catholic boarding school that...