- Cyprian Davis—Monk, Historian, Teacher, Agent of Hope
Memory has a redeeming power within history, theologians and philosophers have claimed, in that uncovering past experience can generate a hope for the future.1 This perspective on the human ability to bring forward past events is close to a biblical and liturgical notion of memory which approaches it not so much as recall as an action whereby something from the past becomes powerfully available in the present through divine power.2 Memory in this view fuels ongoing liberation and so continues to spark hope. Keeping memories alive has been a focus of much of Cyprian Davis’s life and work as a monk and as a church historian and especially as an historian of African-American Catholics in the United States. Through recalling memories he has given hope to lots of people. Davis has brought to the forefront many things long forgotten about black Catholics involvement in their country and in their Church and so given them a history which grounds them and provides a springboard for their future. He has had a long fascination with history and has himself experienced some striking historical transitions in Church and country that have left their mark on him personally and professionally. He knows the power of memory from the inside out.
Cyprian Davis grew up in Washington, D.C., the son of two Washington educators. His father taught at Howard University and his mother taught in the D.C. school system. The extended family included two gentlemen who had distinguished themselves respectively as the first African-American general in the United States Army and as the first African-American general in the United States Air Force. Davis was born on September 9, 1930. He attended Dunbar High School in the District, graduating [End Page 93] in 1948. His interest in history as a youth led to a fascination with the Catholic Church and at the age of fifteen he was received into the Church. He reports having devoured books on history in his youth. His freshman year of college was spent at the Catholic University of America in Washington. His reading had also triggered his interest in monasticism and at the university he met a monk of St. Meinrad Abbey (later Archabbey) who was a doctoral student at the university. This monk suggested contacting and visiting St. Meinrad in southern Indiana. His subsequent visit to St. Meinrad led to his coming to the college run by the monks and then entering the novitiate of the abbey in 1950. In 1951 he professed vows as a monk of the abbey and took the name of Cyprian as his monastic name (his given name was Clarence). Thus began his long career as a Benedictine monk and member of St. Meinrad. While not the first African-American to enter the community, he was the first to make final vows. He continued his education at St. Meinrad Seminary and was ordained a priest in 1956.
Shortly after ordination he returned to the Catholic University of America to complete the requirements for an S.T.L. degree. He returned to St. Meinrad for one year spent teaching history and then went on to pursue the License in Historical Sciences at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. After receiving the license in 1963, he returned to St. Meinrad to teach but subsequently began doctoral studies at Louvain and received the doctorate in historical sciences in 1977 from Louvain. While in Louvain he lived with the monks at the monastery of Mont César (now Keizersberg). He recalls the excitement he and others had of having contact with monks who were involved in the preliminary work leading up to the Second Vatican Council. His focus during his graduate studies was primarily on the middle ages and medieval monasticism. His doctoral dissertation was entitled “The Familia at Cluny, 900–1350.” Many in the monastic world would recognize Cyprian Davis as an accomplished monastic historian. Beginning in 1963, he has introduced countless classes of novices at St. Meinrad to monastic history. Davis himself describes his avoiding studying American history during his graduate years because of the...