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Philip Chivily ’23.
As Philip Chivily ’23 works on his summer Emerson project, “The Invisible Catholics Made Visible: Unveiling Black Catholics in Antebellum America,” he hopes to bring attention to the historical Black Catholic community and reframe what he views as a common misperception about the religion.

“I believe both academia and the wider world sees Catholicism as this white European monolith when it isn’t,” Chivily said. “It's always been a global thing.”

Chivily will focus his research on two American Antebellum Black Catholics who are currently on the road to sainthood. Before he had chosen his Emerson topic, he stumbled upon an encyclopedia article about Pierre Touissant. Sharing both Touissant’s religion and home town of New York City, Chivily felt a connection to him and a desire to learn more. Chivily’s advisor, Professor of History Douglas Ambrose, suggested that he research an additional Black Catholic leader from the Antebellum period: Elizabeth Mary Lange of Baltimore.

Both Touissant and Lange are known for their works of charity. Touissant, made wealthy by his work as a women’s hairdresser, donated a large part of his fortune to cholera victims and their families. With little known about cholera in the 1800s, Touissant risked his life to serve as a nurse during the New York City epidemics. 

Lange similarly supported the health of her Black Catholic community by founding the first and still-active African American Women’s Order, the Oblate Sisters of Providence. This group of women tended to sick Black Catholics that the white Catholic hospitals refused to see.

Chivily will also use these two historical figures to learn about their adjacent communities and the Antebellum Black Catholic community as a whole.

“The African American Catholic communities were neglected, both by the wider church and by the community at large,” Chivily said. “When I first started this research, a few people even asked me what I was going to find, like how many [Black Catholics] really existed then. Due to racist sentiment, these communities were essentially made invisible.” 

Philip Chivily ’23

Majors: Classical studies, History
Hometown: Verona, N.J.
High school: Verona High School

After almost 200 years of being made invisible, there has been an increase in scholarship on the U.S. Black Catholic community in the past 30 years. Chivily hopes to add to this scholarship through his primary document research. This summer, he has already visited the archives at the New York Public Library and  plans to also visit the archives of the Archdiocese of New York and of Baltimore.

“I really hope to highlight these people’s lives and make them more known,” Chivily said. “Maybe if people read my research, even through my dense academic language, they might take away something much more important and meaningful.”

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