Black Catholics

By: Roxanne J. Evans

Type: Overview Entry

Published: November 1, 1994

Updated: April 7, 2021

The first Blacks to arrive in what is now the United States came with the Spaniards. Estevanico was the first Black Roman Catholic of record to arrive on Texas soil in 1528. A native of Azamor on the northwest coast of Morocco, Estevanico was a Christianized slave owned by Andrés Dorantes—a member of the ill-fated Pánfilo de Narváez expedition. The best evidence that Estevanico was a convert to Catholicism lies in the diminutive form of his name Stephen (Esteban in Spanish), the first martyred saint of the Christian Church who was stoned to death around 35 AD. An associate of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Estevanico was one of only four to have survived the three hundred member Narváez land-based exploration to Florida and beyond in North America. The African was much valued as a scout and mediator with Indians by his three Spanish companions, and along with them eventually reached Mexico City in 1536. Mexico at this time had a sizable number of African slaves—all at least nominal Roman Catholics—who were concentrated in the Veracruz region and later on the mining frontier of Zacatecas and Durango. The more northern regions of Mexico also had remote settlements composed of former Black enslaved people (Cimarrones) who had escaped servitude, some of whom were likely Catholic and may have ventured near the borders of Texas. From Louisiana, settled by the French in 1699, Black Catholics migrated to Texas in somewhat greater numbers. However, at no time in Spanish occupied Texas (1716–1821) did Black Catholics have a significant presence. They numbered only 2.2 percent of the total population in 1793. And there is no evidence that their numbers had increased by 1821.

Louisiana has been a major source of Black Catholics in Texas. Slaves were baptized by the Catholic French in that state as early as 1699. Shortly before the Civil War, 60 percent of the country's Black Catholics resided in Louisiana; in the early 1990s two-thirds of the South's Black Catholics still lived there. During the Civil War large numbers of slaves, many of them Catholic, were brought from Louisiana. Later, other Black Catholics migrated from Louisiana, sometimes in large numbers. In 1927 a great flood of the Mississippi River sent Blacks fleeing to Crosby, Texas. Because so many of them were Catholic, by 1936 a mission, Blessed Martin de Porres, was established for the former Louisianans in Crosby. In 1951, as industrial opportunities began to increase in Houston, another large influx of Black Louisiana Catholics moved to Houston and surrounding areas. That year, the Diocese of Galveston had the fifth-largest Black Catholic population among United States dioceses.

Statewide, numerous communities have contributed to the history of Black Catholics in Texas. There have been at least thirty-five predominantly Black parishes in Texas during the last century. In addition to the Houston-Galveston area, Washington-on-the-Brazos, Corpus Christi, Dallas and Fort Worth, Austin, and several East Texas communities have supported Black Catholic parishes and missions. The mission at Washington-on-the-Brazos, the earliest known such group in the state, was founded in 1849. In 1840 plantation owner Malcolm Spain, a Catholic Mississippian, had brought a large group of Blacks to the Brazos River country in Washington Country. The mission, now known as Blessed Virgin Mission, is part of the Catholic Diocese of Austin and serves about forty families.

An emphasis on ministry to Black Catholics in Texas coincided with the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884. The council established annual Negro and Indian missions collections among American Catholics–collections that are still taken–and set up a commission to oversee the distribution of funds. In Houston the first known Black parish was established in October 1887 by Bishop Nicholas A. Gallagher of Galveston. He dedicated a small elementary school in the city's Third Ward for the education of Black children. At the time, nearly 10,500 of Houston's estimated 28,000 residents were Black. Over 100 years later, on February 19, 1988, Louisiana native Curtis Guillory, the first Black Catholic bishop in Texas, was installed as auxiliary bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Galveston-Houston.

St. Peter Claver Church was founded in San Antonio in 1888 by Margaret Mary Healy-Murphy. Although Black Catholics in San Antonio were not numerous, their number grew until, in 1915, there were three predominantly Black churches in the city. In 1889 Holy Rosary Church of Galveston was founded. An important community was established in Ames in 1890, when Black Catholics from Louisiana began migrating to this community. Our Mother of Mercy Church was started there in 1910.

From 1900 until the 1950s Catholicism was growing in other parts of the state as well. As the Black population of Central and North Texas grew, the number of Black Catholics in these areas increased. The older rural Black Catholic communities continued to exist, though they were losing numbers. In Austin, Holy Cross Catholic Church was founded in 1936. The parish also included a school and a hospital, the first Black Catholic hospital in Texas. The hospital presented an important opportunity that extended beyond the Catholic community of Austin: it provided Black women an opportunity to study nursing and gave Black doctors a place to practice (see CATHOLIC HEALTH CARE).

Catholic schools played a key role in trying to foster integration. In the 1940s San Antonio archbishop Robert E. Lucey promoted integrated meetings and competitions between Black and White schools. By 1954 at least 100 Black students went to White Catholic schools in the San Antonio area. During the 1956–57 school year there were over 1,100 Blacks in twenty-four integrated Catholic schools in Texas.

Several religious orders have been important in the history of Black Catholics in Texas, especially the Dominican Sisters, the Jesuits, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Congregation of Holy Cross, the Society of the Divine Word, and the Josephite Fathers. Particularly noteworthy in the earliest years were the Josephites and the Holy Cross order. Black Catholics have also been developed and sustained by the Knights and Ladies of St. Peter Claver. Claver leaders have provided support for Black parishes and raised money to help Black men and women pursue vocations.

Individuals have also made outstanding contributions. Fr. John Henry Dorsey was the second Black Josephite priest in America and the first known Black priest in Texas. Fr. Joseph John of the Society of African Missions of Lyons traveled to Corpus Christi in 1926 and returned to his native Trinidad in 1929. In the early 1990s Fr. George Artis, pastor of Holy Cross parish in Austin and a Divine Word priest, was a leader of Black Texas Catholics.

Historically, both Blacks and Catholics have met stiff opposition from some White Texans, ranging from general aversion to Ku Klux Klan violence. If this situation had been averted, the antislavery teaching intrinsic to the Catholic faith might have been more influential in Texas culture. Segregation helped to determine where and how Black parishes began in Texas. The effect of integration on their development is, however, unknown. Black Catholic ranks in Texas have been gradually supplemented by migration from other parts of the country, particularly the North. The influx was especially heavy from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. The majority of Black parishes remain predominantly Black and preserve rich traditions. The renewed emphasis in the Catholic Church upon welcoming the cultural gifts of all peoples, together with continued condemnation of racism, offers a propitious climate for growth. In 1993, of the two million Black Catholics nationwide, approximately 54,000 lived in Texas. The largest number resided in the Houston-Galveston Area. See also AFRICAN AMERICANS.

Rolena Adorno and Patrick Charles Pautz, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: His Account, His Life, and the Expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez (3 vols., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999). Carolyn Arrington, Black Explorer in Texas: Estevanico (Austin: Eakin Press, 1986). Alwyn Barr, Black Texans: A History of Negroes in Texas, 1528–1971 (Austin: Jenkins, 1973). Carlos E. Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas (7 vols., Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1936–58; rpt., New York: Arno, 1976). Catholic Archives of Texas. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin (Catholic Church). Donald E. Chipman and Harriett Denise Joseph, Spanish Texas, 1519–1821 (rev. ed., Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010).

  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Religion
  • Catholic

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Roxanne J. Evans, “Black Catholics,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 24, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1994
April 7, 2021

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: