Black Catholic Nuns: A Fascinating and Long-Ignored History

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By David Crary

April 30, 2022 GMT

Even as a young adult, Shannen Dee Williams – who grew up black and Catholic in Memphis, Tennessee – knew only one black nun, and a fake one at that: Sister Mary Clarence, played by Whoopi Goldberg in the comedy film ” Sister Law.”

After 14 years of dogged research, Williams — a history professor at the University of Dayton — arguably knows more about black American nuns than anyone in the world. His full and compelling story, “Subversive Habits,” will be released on May 17.

Williams found that many black nuns were modest about their accomplishments and reluctant to share details of bad experiences, such as racism and discrimination. Some acknowledged harrowing events only after Williams confronted them with details gleaned from other sources.

“For me, it was about acknowledging the ways in which trauma silences people in ways they may not even be aware of,” she said.

The story is told chronologically, but always within the context of a theme that Williams stresses forcefully in her preface: that the nearly 200-year history of these nuns in the United States has been ignored or suppressed by those who resented or disrespected them.

“For too long, scholars of the American, Catholic, and Black past have unknowingly or consciously declared—by virtue of misrepresentation, marginalization, and outright erasure—that the history of Black Catholic nuns has no meaning. importance,” Williams wrote, describing her book as proof that their story “has always mattered.”

The book comes as many American institutions, including religious groups, grapple with their racist pasts and shine a spotlight on neglected black pioneers in their communities.

Williams begins her story in the pre-Civil War era when some black women — even in slave states — made their way into Catholic sisterhood. Some entered orders previously reserved for whites, often in menial roles, while a few pioneering women succeeded in forming orders for black nuns in Baltimore and New Orleans.

Even as the number of American nuns — of all races — relentlessly dwindles, this Baltimore order founded in 1829 remains intact, continuing its mission to educate young black people. Some current members of the Oblate Sisters of Providence help run Saint Frances Academy, a high school serving low-income black neighborhoods.

Some of the most detailed passages in “Subversive Habits” chronicle the Jim Crow era, which spans from the 1870s to the 1950s, when black nuns were not spared the segregation and discrimination endured by many other Africans. -Americans.

In the 1960s, Williams writes, black nuns were often discouraged or prevented by their white superiors from engaging in civil rights struggles.

Yet one of them, Sister Mary Antona Ebo, was at the forefront of marchers who gathered in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 to support black suffrage and protest Bloody Sunday violence when white state troopers brutally dispersed peaceful black protesters. . An Associated Press photo of Ebo and other nuns during the march on March 10 – three days after Bloody Sunday – made headlines in many newspapers.

For two decades before Selma, Ebo faced repeated struggles to break down racial barriers. At one point, she was denied admission to Catholic nursing schools because of her race, and later endured segregation policies in the white-led order of sisters she joined. in St. Louis in 1946, according to Williams.

The idea for “Subversive Habits” took shape in 2007, when Williams – then a graduate student at Rutgers University – was desperate for a compelling topic for a paper to be presented at a seminar on African-American history.

At the library, she rummaged through microfilm editions of black-owned newspapers and came across a 1968 article in the Pittsburgh Courier about a group of Catholic nuns forming the National Conference of Black Sisters.

The accompanying photo, of four smiling black nuns, “literally stopped me in my tracks,” she said. “I was raised Catholic… How did I not know black nuns existed?”

Fascinated by her discovery, she began to devour “everything I could that had been published on black Catholic history,” while undertaking to interview the founding members of the National Conference of Black Sisters.

Among the women Williams interviewed at length was Patricia Grey, who was a nun with the Sisters of Mercy and founder of the CNB before leaving religious life in 1974.

Gray shared with The Associated Press painful memories of 1960, when – as an aspiring nurse – she was rejected for membership in a Catholic order because she was black.

“I was so hurt and disappointed I couldn’t believe it,” she said of reading that rejection letter. “I remember crumbled it and didn’t even want to see it again or think about it again.”

Gray was initially reluctant to help with “Subversive Habits,” but eventually shared her own story and personal archive after urging Williams to write about the “mostly overlooked and underresearched story” of black American nuns.

“If you can, try to tell all of our stories,” Gray told her.

That’s exactly what Williams set out to do – sifting through neglected archives, previously sealed church records and out-of-print books, while conducting more than 100 interviews.

“I have witnessed a deeply unknown story that disrupts and revises much of what has been said and written about the American Catholic Church and the place of black people within it,” Williams writes. “Because it is impossible to tell the journey of black sisters in the United States – accurately and honestly – without confronting the largely unacknowledged and unreconciled histories of colonialism, slavery and segregation.”

Historians have been unable to identify the nation’s first black Catholic nun, but Williams recounts some of the early moves to bring black women into Catholic religious orders – in some cases, in the hope that they would function as servants.

One of the oldest black brotherhoods, the Sisters of the Holy Family, formed in New Orleans in 1842 because white Louisiana brotherhoods, including the slave-holding Ursuline order, refused to accept Afro -Americans.

The main founder of this New Orleans order – Henriette Delille – and the founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, Mary Lange, are among the three black nuns in the United States designated by Catholic authorities as worthy of consideration for holiness. . The other is Sister Thea Bowman, a beloved educator, evangelist and singer who died in Mississippi in 1990 and is buried in Memphis, Williams’ hometown.

In searching for lesser nuns, Williams faced many challenges – for example, tracking down Catholic sisters known to their contemporaries by their religious names but listed in the archives by their secular names.

Among the many pioneers was Sister Cora Marie Billings, who at age 17 in 1956 became the first black person admitted to the Sisters of Mercy in Philadelphia. Later she was the first black nun to teach at a Catholic high school in Philadelphia and was a co-founder of the National Black Sisters’ Conference.

In 1990, Billings became the first black woman in the United States to lead a Catholic parish when she was appointed pastoral coordinator of St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church in Richmond, Virginia.

“I have been through many situations of racism and oppression throughout my life,” Billings told The Associated Press. “But somehow I just dealt with it and carried on.”

According to recent figures from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, there are about 400 African-American nuns, out of a total of about 40,000 nuns.

This overall figure represents only a quarter of the 160,000 nuns in 1970, according to statistics compiled by Catholic researchers at Georgetown University. Regardless of race, most of the remaining nuns are elderly, and the influx of young novices is rare.

The Baltimore-based Oblate Sisters of Providence once had more than 300 members, according to their superior general, Sr. Rita Michelle Proctor, and now has fewer than 50 — most living at the motherhouse in outskirts of Baltimore.

“Although we are small, we are still in service to God and to God’s people.” said the overseer. “Most of us are old people, but we still want to do it as long as God calls us.”

Even with reduced ranks, the Oblate Sisters continue to operate Saint Frances Academy – founded in Baltimore by Mary Lange in 1828. The coeducational school is the nation’s oldest black Catholic educational institution, with a mission giving priority to helping the “poor and neglected”. .”

Williams, in an interview with the AP, said she was considering leaving the Catholic Church — in part because of her handling of racial issues — when she began researching black nuns. Hearing their stories, in their own voices, revitalized her faith, she says.

“As these women were telling me their stories, they were also preaching to me in such a beautiful way,” Williams said. “It was not done in a way that reflected any anger – they had already made peace with it, despite the ungodly discrimination they had faced.”

What keeps her in the church now, Williams said, is a commitment to those women who have chosen to share their stories.

“It took a lot for them to get it out,” she said. “I remain in awe of these women, of their loyalty.”

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AP video reporter Jessie Wardarski contributed to this report.

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Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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