By Larry Peterson
No one knows what their real names were. That was because they were Negroes kidnapped from Africa and transported to San Fratello, Italy, in the early 16th century. San Fratello was a small town near Messina in Sicily, and this is where the newly arrived “dark people” would spend their lives. Once settled in by their “owners,” they were assigned Italian names. They became Cristoforo and Diana Manasseri.
As the years passed by, Cristoforo and Diana converted to Christianity and led exemplary lives. In 1526, Diana gave birth to a son, and they named him Benedict. Benedict’s mom and dad had fulfilled their duties as faithfully and thoroughly as they possibly could. Their owner, a devout Catholic and a kind man, rewarded them by granting freedom to their son on his eighteenth birthday. Benedict, who had never attended school because he was a slave, was illiterate.
Benedict continued his work as a day laborer and a shepherd. His meager wages he shared with the poor, and in his spare time, cared for the sick. Because of his lowly status, Benedict the Moor was often the object of ridicule. He stood tall in the face of the name-calling and mockery, and cheerfully told others that he was known as “The Holy Black.”
One day, when Benedict was about 21 years old, he was see being publicly ridiculed by some people because of his color. A group of hermits from nearby Mount Pellegrino and their leader, James Lanze, noticed him. Lanze was a nobleman who had left the world to live under the Rule of St. Francis. James Lanze spoke to Benedict, and Benedict sold his few possessions and joined the monastic group. It was not long after that he moved with them to Palermo.
His Catholic faith deeply rooted within him, Benedict, a lay brother, happily worked in the kitchen at the Friary od St. Mary of Jesus. But God had other plans for Benedict. When the director of the friary passed away, Benedict was chosen as the Guardian of the friary. He still could neither read nor write. After one year as Guardian, he was selected as Novice Master. Many wondered how he could effectively hold such a position.
As was part of his job, many people sought his counsel. From those that were novices to professed religious, people of all classes came to him for advice. Benedict, an uneducated black man, possessed an extraordinary gift of prayer and seemingly had full knowledge of the scriptures and an instinctive ability to understand deep theological truths. Learned men were astounded, and word of Benedict’s spirituality spread. Soon the monastery was flooded with visitors. The poor were there asking for alms, the sick were searching for a cure, and others just wanted advice or prayers.
Many said that St. Benedict’s face was seen shining as with a celestial light whenever he was praying in the chapel. While working as a cook, others said that angels were seen helping him in the kitchen and that more often than not, food seemed to miraculously increase as Benedict placed it on the tables.
Benedict would have preferred to live a hidden life, unknown to the world. As he aged, he asked to be relieved of his duties and be allowed to return to the kitchen. This request was granted, and Benedict predicted the day and hour he would die. He fell ill and, after a short time, passed to his eternal reward. The date was April 4, 1589. It was the day he had foretold.
Benedict’s death saw a huge cult develop, and his veneration spread throughout Spain, Italy, and Latin America. Three years after Benedict’s death, his body was exhumed and found perfectly preserved. In 1611, King Philip III of Spain authorized the adding on to the Franciscan Friary of St. Mary of Jesus, a shrine dedicated to St. Benedict the Moor. His incorrupt body is on display to this very day for all to see.
St Benedict the Moor was beatified by Pope Benedict XIV in 1743 and was canonized by Pope Pius VII in 1807. He is the Patron Saint of African Missions and, along with St. Martin de Porres, is the Patron Saint of African-Americans.
In today’s charged political environment, this great saint stands out as a model of patience and understanding when it comes to being confronted with racial prejudice. The following are historically black Roman Catholic Churches located in the United States which bear Benedict’s name; Washington, DC, New York City, Chicago (2), Pittsburgh, PA, North Omaha, Nebraska, Dayton, Ohio, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Grambling, Louisiana, and, Savannah, Georgia ( the oldest Catholic church for African-Americans in the entire Southeast.
Saint Benedict the Moor, please pray for us.