A witness of faith and history: Father Cyprian Davis was top chronicler of black Catholic history

November 10, 2015

HOUSTON and CNS — Madeline Johnson, producer of the Archdiocesan radio ministry, said she remembers meeting Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis multiple times during his life. Her favorite memory came in 1993 when he came to visit Houston. This was the Centennial Year for St. Joseph’s Society of the Sacred Heart (The Josephites), and Father Cyprian accepted the invitation to participate.

“We served on a panel during an all-day conference at St. Peter the Apostle Parish, staffed by The Josephites,” she said. “There was so much joy the entire day — I was pleased that it was here on my home turf.”
Father Davis wrote six books, including “The History of Black Catholics in the United States,” published in 1990, which he signed twice for Johnson when he discovered he had spelled her name incorrectly the first time.

“I personally admired Father’s flair of his pen — from the inkwell of all that blacks endured, overcame and became — Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., literally ‘wrote the wrong and right of rites that refused the receipt for colored Catholics.’” Johnson said. “When we needed to know — we got the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth from Father Davis’ writings — he was the evangelist of our era; his own conversion to Catholicism helped evangelize others into our faith. His presence in our midst and the pen of his hand wrote ‘our gospel of the day for decades’ bearing witness to the successors of the apostles, the descendants of disciples, the poor, the widows, the fatherless, the orphans, indeed every motherless child almost 2,000 years (and beyond) learned the lessons printed in the Good Book through the good books written by the little boy born in our nation’s capital.”

Born Clarence John Davis Sept. 9, 1930, in Washington, he joined the Catholic Church as a teenager. He was still in high school when he became interested in the priesthood and monastic life.

He studied at St. Meinrad Seminary from 1949 to 1956, was invested as a novice monk in 1950, professed simple vows in 1951 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1956. Father Davis was the first African-American to make final vows at St. Meinrad Seminary.

After teaching at the seminary for a year, Father Davis received a licentiate in sacred theology from The Catholic University of America, Washington, in 1957, and a licentiate and doctorate in historical sciences from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, in 1963 and 1977, respectively.

While in Louvain studying Church history, Father Davis focused and specialized in the Middle Ages, seeking to avoid the slavery issues of America. However, he returned to America in 1963, where he took part in the March on Washington and was able to hear Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1965 he traveled to Selma, Ala., to be part of the march for black voting right — a march attended by young priests Archbishop Emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza, Retired Bishop Vincent M. Rizzotto and Bishop Emeritus John E. McCarthy of the Austin Diocese, who was the first-ever auxiliary bishop of Galveston-Houston. 

He began teaching Church history at St. Meinrad in 1963. At that time, he began receiving invitations to speak at events, particularly in black parishes where Catholics needed guidance in fitting into the Church. 
By the 1980s, Father Davis was well-known for his research regarding the presence of blacks in the Catholic Church. He was highly respected by the black bishops who invited his expertise when they needed to be authors themselves, writing “Brothers and Sisters to Us” (1979 Pastoral Letter on racism), which is available in its entirety in the website for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“Religious Orders of men and women were pleased to be part and particle of the extensive research to include the decades, generations of what was done to nurture the spiritual needs of blacks in the Catholic communities of our nation,” Johnson said.

Father Davis was an archivist of the archabbey. He also belonged to the American Catholic Historical Association and the Society of American Archivists.

He also served as archivist for the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, of which in 1968 he was a founding member. Father Davis contributed to the second draft of “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” the U.S. bishops’ 1979 pastoral letter on racism, and helped write the initial draft of “What We Have Seen and Heard,” the 1984 pastoral letter on evangelization from the nation’s black Catholic bishops.

His other books include “Christ’s Image in Black: The Black Catholic Community Before the Civil War,” “To Prefer Nothing to Christ,” and “The Church: A Living Heritage,” He was 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.

“Father Cyprian Davis was a significant leader as a Benedictine monk and priest of St. Meinrad Archabbey and as a spiritual writer, historian and advocate for the vibrant presence of African-American Catholic leaders,” said a May 18 statement from Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

“Most of all, Father Cyprian was a humble child of God who sought in an unassuming way to live a life of holiness and to place his considerable talents at the service of Christ and his Church,” Archbishop Kurtz added.

Father Davis was honored numerous times. In 2007, he received the Marianist Award from the University of Dayton in Ohio. In 2003, he was awarded the Johannes Quasten Medal for Excellence in Scholarship and Leadership in Religious Studies by Catholic University. In 1992, Father Davis won the American Catholic Historical Association’s John Gilmary Shea Prize for “The History of Black Catholics in the United States” for making the most original and significant contribution to the historiography of the Catholic Church. He also won the Brother Joseph Davis Award in 1991, and was given an honorary degree in 2001 by the University of Notre Dame.

In 2012, Father Davis became St. Meinrad’s first professor emeritus. 

Father Davis, who died May 18 at Memorial Hospital in Jasper, Ind., was 84.

“There must be no turning back along the road of justice, no sighing for bygone times of privilege, no nostalgia for simple solutions from another age. For we are children of the age to come, when the first shall be last and the last shall be first, when blessed are they who serve Christ the Lord in all His brothers and sisters, especially those who are poor and suffer injustice.”

- Brothers and Sisters To Us, the 1979 US Bishops Pastoral Letter on Racism
The letter can be read in full at the USCCB website.