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Father Cyprian Davis, OSB
Conferral speech for the Distinguished Alumnus Award given at the 2004 Saint Meinrad Alumni Reunion

Presented August 10, 2004
by Father Richard M. Ginther, member of the Alumni Association Board of Directors

When Clarence Davis visited the monastery and seminary at Saint Meinrad in the late 1940s, he didn’t know what to expect. As a black teenager from Washington, D.C., Clarence had joined the Catholic faith while in high school and had become interested in the priesthood and monastic life.

 

In his first inquiries into joining a religious order, he learned that many religious communities were not yet accepting blacks. Unsure of what to do, he spoke with a professor at The Catholic University of America who, by coincidence, had a Benedictine monk from Saint Meinrad in her class, Father Gerard Ellspermann. Father Gerard suggested that Clarence visit Saint Meinrad.

 

After high school, he traveled to Saint Meinrad. He recalls his first impression: “That first day, I wanted to get away from here so bad. Saint Meinrad just kind of oppressed me. But by the end of the week, I had fallen in love with the place.”

 

In 1950, he joined the novitiate and, a year later, taking Cyprian as his monastic name, he professed his vows. Father Cyprian became the first African-American to make final vows in the monastic community at Saint Meinrad. He studied for the priesthood and was ordained in 1956.

 

After teaching history at Saint Meinrad for a year, he was sent to The Catholic University of Louvain for advanced study in Church history. He earned his licentiate in historical sciences in 1963 and his doctorate in 1977.

 

In his studies of Church history at Louvain, Father Cyprian specialized in the Middle Ages, seeking to avoid the American unpleasantness of slavery issues and racial strife. But fate has a way of changing one’s plans.

 

Father Cyprian returned to the United States in the full throes of the Civil Rights Movement. It was August 1963, just in time to take part in the March on Washington and to be among the crowd who heard the “I Have a Dream” speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1965, he traveled to Selma, Alabama, to be part of the march for black voting rights.

 

Shortly thereafter, as a black Catholic professor of Church history, Father Cyprian began getting requests to speak, particularly at black parishes. Black Catholics began asking him where they fit into the Catholic Church. Young African Americans were skeptical of what they considered was “a white man’s church.” Often, he was asked, “Does Catholicism have anything to say to black people?”

 

He was confronting these questions when he came across some research by Thomas Spalding on five Catholic lay Congresses held between 1889 and 1894 – the first nationwide meetings of black Catholics in the United States. Father Cyprian learned that the meetings were organized by Daniel Rudd, who also had published a black Catholic weekly newspaper, The American Catholic Tribune. The discovery of this newspaper and the Congresses proved the existence of a long-standing black Catholic community.

 

It also opened the doors of historical research for Father Cyprian. Still, he did not intend to write a groundbreaking book on the history of black Catholics in the United States just then. But a phone call from Duke University asking him to participate in a Lilly Endowment project to study the black Church changed his mind.

 

With Lilly’s grant money and a sabbatical from teaching, Father Cyprian began his quest for answers about the role of black Catholics in the American Church. His landmark book, The History of Black Catholics in the United States, was published in 1990. In 1991, it received the John Gilmary Shea Award from the American Catholic Historical Association.

 

Father Cyprian’s work on Church history, and particularly black Catholics, has continued on many fronts. He served on the subcommittee for the preliminary drafts of the Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on racism, “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” in 1979 and the Black Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on evangelization, “What We Have Seen and Heard,” in 1984.

 

In 1998, he co-edited with Professor Diana Hayes a collection of articles on Black Catholic thought and theology, titled Taking Down Our Harps: Black Catholics in the United States. He also contributed two articles to the book.

 

Five different times, Father Cyprian has visited Africa to serve as a visiting professor of Church history and to lecture on the development of monastic archives in men’s and women’s monasteries there.

 

This year saw the publication of two more books: Stamped with the Image of God: African Americans as God’s Image in Black, which he co-edited with Jamie Phelps, and Henriette Delille, Servant of Slaves, Witness to the Poor, which chronicles the life of the black woman who founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans.

 

In time for this year’s celebration of the Archabbey’s 150th anniversary, Father Cyprian has edited a book of historical essays about Saint Meinrad. Just off the press, it is titled To Prefer Nothing to Christ.

 

Today, he continues his work of teaching, researching, speaking on, writing about and preserving history. As professor of Church history at Saint Meinrad School of Theology, where he has been teaching since the 1960s, he continues to make the history of the Catholic Church come alive for seminary and lay students.

 

He also serves as the archivist for Saint Meinrad Archabbey and for the Swiss-American Congregation of Benedictine abbeys. In addition, he is the archivist for the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, of which he was a founding member in 1968.

 

The Saint Meinrad Alumni Association, in this, the 150th year of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, is pleased to honor a preeminent historian, a dedicated archivist, an outstanding teacher, and a faithful monk. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the 2004 Distinguished Alumnus Award recipient, Father Cyprian Davis.

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