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  • Building up a Household of Faith: Dom Cyprian Davis, O.S.B, and the Work of History
  • M. Shawn Copeland

You too are living stones, built as an edifice of the Spirit, into a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ

(1 Peter 2:4–5).

Being that can be remembered is text.1

For a people to ‘lose’ their history, to have their story denigrated as insignificant, is a devastating blow, an exclusion that in effect denies their full humanity.2

The relation of theology to human historicity in the sense of cultural diversity constitutes an ongoing problematic. On the one hand, cultural memory as the recollection of a particular people’s common experiences, understanding, negotiations, judgments, values, aspirations, and achievements has emerged as a crucial resource for contextual theologies. On the other hand, this resource, particularly, in the case of black or African American Catholics has posed difficulties in the writing of American Catholic history.3 As long as historical studies of American Catholicism focused on institutions, significant events, the hierarchy, clergy, and religious orders of men and, sometimes, women, the omission of black Catholics could be attributed both to the paucity of their membership and the rarity of institutions, events, hierarchy, clergy and vowed religious men and women among them. An exceptional or conspicuous black figure or occasion might be noted, yet attracted little sustained investigation. Prior to the late 1960s, outside the works of Josephite priest John T. Gillard and Jesuits John La Farge and Albert S. [End Page 53] Foley,4 American Catholic historical studies gave scant attention to the contributions, witness, and faith life of black Catholics. This neglect has had serious consequences both for our self-understanding as a regional church, for American Catholic history, and for pastoral and systematic theology.

Perhaps, the shift in historical method provoked by the French Annales school,5 with its focus on studies of ordinarily overlooked topics, classes, groups, and persons and on social scientific research, gained a footing in American Catholic historiography with the publication of American Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States.6 In this study, Jesuit James Hennesey recognized, at least implicitly, the poverty of prevailing interpretative categories. His narrative showed that the colonial Catholic community was polyglot, culturally and racially diverse, socially complex, Tories and Patriots, slaveholders and non-slaveholders, enslaved and free. And in Hennesey’s work, black Catholics were not distorted as “special topics”7 or as problems and their membership in the church was not confined to the post Civil-Rights era or caricatured as self-serving upward mobility.8 [End Page 54]

But, the most thoroughgoing and rigorous challenge to the disregard and distortion of black Catholics as historical actors and subjects has come from the pen of Benedictine monk Cyprian Davis. With the publication of The History of Black Catholics in the United States,9 Davis enriched, deepened, and complexified the cultural memory of black Catholics and overturned the claims that the most comprehensive category for understanding the history of the U. S. Catholic community is nineteenth century immigration and that African American Christianity is limited to Protestantism.10 Twenty years later, the body of work that Davis has accumulated constitutes an enduring contribution to the whole of American Catholic historiography, to our self-understanding as a regional church, and to the development of African American Catholic theology. Above all, Davis’ work is an inestimable gift to black Catholics: By retrieving our history, our cultural memory, he has restored us to ourselves, to our humanity, to our rightful place in the story of the American Catholic community. Writing of the desires and doings of God’s black human creatures, Cyprian Davis has written black Catholics into textual history, into being.

Cyprian Davis’ work may be appreciated as both an archaeological and architectural achievement. If Hennesey gave the Annales School a footing, Davis has given it solid traction. True to the historical methods he learned at Louvain, he has found traces of human life and love, creativity and beauty, suffering and joy across time and continents, sifting and weighing, organizing and assembling the complex often contradictory elements of African...


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pp. 53-63
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