Black Catholic priest-historian retraces his own history
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WASHINGTON (CNS) - Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis, one of the leading historians of the black Catholic experience in the United States, came to the Catholic Church thanks in part to history. But it wasn't the kind of history that's reflected in his own books.
"Ever since I was a kid, I devoured books on history," said Father Davis, now 76 years old. "It's part of the reason I became a Catholic. "I converted when I was kid - I was in my teens. ... One of the books I remember reading was unbelievable: H.G. Wells' 'The Outline of History' -- and H.G. Wells was not a great Christian man," he said, laughing. "I wasn't worried about that. I was into all the descriptions of what was going on, what the popes did. I thought it was great. So it was not an intellectual understanding that led me into Catholicism. This was a typical, I guess, sort of adolescent interest." Later on, Father Davis said, "I began to read other things. I would never describe my odyssey as being an intellectual journey. It was more or less a falling in love with history. It made me fall in love with one of the things history talks about and that would be the Catholic Church." It is a love that has served both Father Davis and his chosen church well. On Feb. 1, he received the Marianist Award from the University of Dayton in Ohio. The award honors a Catholic whose work has made a major contribution to intellectual life. Father Davis, a church history professor at St. Meinrad School of Theology in Indiana, is perhaps best known for his book "The History of Black Catholics in the United States." He is also the author of "Christ's Image in Black: The Black Catholic Community Before the Civil War," "To Prefer Nothing To Christ," "The Church: A Living Heritage," and "Henriette Delille, Servant of Slaves, Witness to the Poor." He is co-author of "Taking Down Our Harps: Black Catholics in the United States," with Georgetown University theology professor Diana Hayes, and "Stamped With the Image of God: African Americans as God's Image in Black," with Dominican Sister Jamie T. Phelps. The odd thing is that Father Davis hadn't originally intended to write about black Catholics. "That really began to grow within me when I almost finished my career as a student at the University of Louvain" in Belgium, Father Davis told Catholic News Service in a Feb. 7 telephone interview from St. Meinrad. "I was getting a degree in history, and I had specialized in a sense when I wrote my dissertation. It was dealing with monastic history," he said. "When I went away to study history, I had no desire to study American history, particularly because I was not interested in reading about slavery, and to read about the problems of race and so forth. That was a painful subject and I didn't want to spend my time doing that." Father Davis returned to the United States in 1963. And what a time it was. "All those times were in ferment, especially in regard to civil rights, and that's when I began to realize its importance. People began to come and ask me about being black and Catholic: 'What is my place in the church?'" he recalled. "That's when I began to realize that this is important. ... That's when I began to do my own research." The research hasn't ended, either. "I'm interested, really, right now in bringing up to date the book I wrote on the history of black Catholics," Father Davis told CNS. "I'm especially interested right now in the position of black Catholics during the civil rights crisis, because that has not been studied a lot." While the headlines of the era were made overwhelmingly by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other black Protestant clergy, Father Davis has researched the contributions Catholic blacks had made to the civil rights cause. He hopes to complete his manuscript before the school year ends at St. Meinrad, with hopes of seeing the new edition out in print early in 2008.
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