New prize launched for research projects on the Black Catholic experience

Author: Stephen M. Koeth, C.S.C., and Shane Ulbrich

Cyprian Davis Lecturing
Father Cyprian Davis, O.S.B.

The University of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism has partnered with the American Catholic Historical Association (ACHA) to launch the Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., Prize recognizing outstanding research on the Black Catholic experience. The deadline for the first round of applications is December 31, 2020. 

The prize celebrates the life and legacy of Father Cyprian Davis, O.S.B. (1930–2015), a Benedictine monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana, respected academic, and beloved teacher and lecturer. Born in Washington, D.C., Father Davis converted to Catholicism as a teenager and entered the monastic community at Saint Meinrad in 1950. He was ordained a priest in 1956 and undertook doctoral studies at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, training as a historian of medieval monasticism. Returning to the United States in 1963 to begin his long teaching career at Saint Meinrad, Davis attended the March on Washington and was inspired to use his skills as a historian to tell the story of African American Catholics. 

Father Davis served as archivist for the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, of which he was a founding member, and contributed to the drafting of two pastoral letters of the U.S. bishops’ conference: “Brothers and Sisters to Us” (1970) and “What We Have Seen and Heard” (1984). Among his six books, The History of Black Catholics in the United States (Crossroad, 1990) won the John Gilmary Shea Prize for its groundbreaking contribution.

Upon Father Davis’ death in 2015, Cecilia Moore of the University of Dayton stated that with the publication of The History of Black Catholics in the United States, Davis “became the most well-known and well-loved Black Catholic scholar in the world.” His scholarship, Moore said, “made all the difference in how Black Catholics understood themselves, their ancestors in the faith, and their contribution to the Catholic Church.”

In summer 2020, following a proposal by Dr. Shannen Dee Williams of Villanova University and a resolution of the ACHA Executive Council, the ACHA and the Cushwa Center agreed to honor Davis’ legacy by launching a new research award for works in progress that center Black Catholics. The Davis Prize includes a cash award of $1,000. Recipients will be honored at the ACHA’s annual meeting held in January each year.  

“I am delighted that this tribute to Father Cyprian has occasioned the first formal collaboration between the Cushwa Center and the American Catholic Historical Association,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center. “This award not only honors Dr. Davis’ legacy, but carries his mission forward at a moment when understanding the Black Catholic past has never been more critical.”

“Father Cyprian Davis was a pioneer in the study of African American Catholicism. His scholarly contributions were expansive and stretched across an entire spectrum of topics related to the relationship between Catholicism and the African American community,” said James T. Carroll, president of the ACHA and professor of American history at Iona College. “His books, articles, and conference presentations were a reminder to those who study American Catholicism that all members of the Catholic community need to be included in the scholarly conversation.”

This is the fourth research funding program launched at the Cushwa Center since 2011. Peter D’Agostino Research Travel Grants, inaugurated in 2011, support the study of U.S. Catholic history from international perspectives by means of Roman archives. Theodore M. Hesburgh Grants began being offered in 2015 to support projects using archival materials at Notre Dame related to Father Hesburgh. In 2018, the center established Mother Theodore Guerin Grants supporting research that features Catholic women more prominently in modern history. 

In 2004, the Cushwa Center hosted scholars and Church leaders for a national conference, “Uncommon Faithfulness: The Witness of African American Catholics.” Conference proceedings were published in 2009 in Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience, edited by M. Shawn Copeland. More recently, the center has hosted lectures by Father Clarence Williams, C.PP.S., and Matthew J. Cressler on reimagining American Catholic history in light of Black Catholic voices and narratives. In October 2021, the Cushwa Center will cosponsor the Black Catholic Theological Symposium, to be hosted at Notre Dame by the University’s Department of Theology.


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Photo is courtesy of Saint Meinrad Archabbey.