Faith, Freedom and Juneteenth

by Desirae Sifuentes

Juneteenth, celebrated annually on June 19th, commemorates the day in 1865 when enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, were finally informed of their freedom—more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This day is not just a marker of the end of slavery, but also a testament to resilience, hope, and the enduring quest for dignity and justice. When viewed through the lens of a Catholic worldview, Juneteenth becomes a significant celebration of liberation that echoes the Church’s teachings on human dignity, social justice, and the sanctity of each and every human life.

Let’s go back to that day in 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in Galveston and announced General Order No. 3, which proclaimed freedom for the enslaved. Despite the Emancipation Proclamation being effective on January 1, 1863, enforcement relied heavily on Union troop movements. Texas, being one of the most remote slave states, saw very little change until Granger's arrival. The newly freed people of Texas transformed June 19th into an annual celebration, first with church-centered community gatherings, which evolved into the broader public festivities we see today.

The Catholic Church’s teachings on human dignity and social justice deeply align with the spirit of Juneteenth. The Church proclaims that every person is made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27), which underpins the belief in the inherent, inviolable, equal dignity of every human being. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that slavery is a grave violation of this dignity, and a sin against God and humanity (CCC 2414). Juneteenth, therefore, is not just a celebration of historical freedom, but a recognition of the ongoing need to uphold these truths in our contemporary world.

Several African American figures who have been venerated within the Catholic Church embody the same resilience and faith that Juneteenth celebrates. Among them are Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Venerable Augustus Tolton, Servant of God Julia Greeley, and Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman. Their lives offer profound examples of living faith amid adversity and embodying the Gospel’s call to justice and charity.

Venerable Pierre Toussaint (get his Tiny Saint here) was born into slavery in Haiti and brought to New York City, where he eventually gained his freedom. Despite his struggles, Toussaint became a successful hairdresser and philanthropist, using his resources to care for the poor, support the Church, and fund the first Catholic school for black children in New York. His life is a testament to the power of faith and charity in transforming society and uplifting the marginalized.

Venerable Augustus Tolton (whose Tiny Saint is here) was born a slave in Missouri in 1854, just 9 years before Juneteenth and 7 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. The Toltons escaped slavery during the Civil War in 1863 and moved to Quincy, Illinois. Their pastor welcomed Augustine into the parish school and then helped him enter seminary in Rome. Newly ordained Father Tolton, the first black American priest, was sent to establish a parish for African-American Catholics in Chicago. The Tolton family’s bravery in the face of persecution is a beautiful example of the worth we find in our identities as Christians.

Servant of God Julia Greeley (Tiny Saint here) was also a slave. A proficient philanthropist and catholic concert, Greeley is known as Denver’s “Angel of Charity,” because of her work and aid for many families stricken by poverty. After gaining her freedom, she became an easily recognizable sight, towing her red wagon filled with coal, clothing, and groceries to families in need. Julia Greeley is a witness to the spirit of all oppressed peoples, who don’t let their past define them, but instead remember the pain of inequity and use their capabilities for the betterment of others.

Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman (one of my favorites whose Tiny Saint is here) was a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration and a dynamic advocate for intercultural awareness within the Church. Bowman’s work emphasized the richness of African American culture and spirituality and the importance of racial harmony. She became well-educated, and lived an inspiring life as a religious sister, whose joyful love of God was infectious to all around her. Her legacy continues to inspire efforts towards inclusivity and justice within the Church and society.

Juneteenth is a day of jubilation and reflection, celebrating the end of slavery and the enduring quest for justice and equality. For Catholics, this celebration aligns deeply with the Church’s teachings on human dignity and social justice. The lives of venerated black figures in the Catholic Church offer powerful examples of faith, resilience, and charity, inspiring us to continue the work of building a more just and compassionate world. As we celebrate Juneteenth, let us also renew our commitment to the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, working towards a society where the dignity of every person is recognized and upheld. To learn more about celebrated black figures in the church, check out these books:

Fr. Augustus Tolton: The slave who became the first African-American priest

Black Catholics on the Road to Sainthood