Making Black Catholic History Today: Black Catholic Interviews 2 – CTU’s 2016 Interview With Dr. Shannen Dee Williams on History of Black Catholic Sisters (Black Catholic History Month 2019)

Making Black Catholic History Today: Black Catholic Interviews 2 – CTU’s 2016 Interview With Dr. Shannen Dee Williams on History of Black Catholic Sisters (Black Catholic History Month 2019)

November 16, 2019 0 By BLACKCATHOLIC

Featured Black Catholic Interviews for Black Catholic History Month 2019:
On Thursdays this month I will feature interviews with Black Catholics to showcase how Black Catholic history is being made by the lives of those living today. I have had the idea for this kind of thing in my head for a while, but this will be a sort of test case for a new article-series featuring interviews with Black Catholics that I would like to start in the future (near or distant). It will be a test for me to see how well I can make this type of content and a test of the content itself to see if it goes over well. So I would definitely appreciate your feedback on this one if you would like to see more of these type of interviews in the future.

I meant to get this on actually on Thursday, but I needed to get seminary stuff done, and I fell behind in posting. Nevertheless, I still want to get one out for this week so here it is!

This week’s featured interview is one that was done by Catholic Theological Union, a graduate school for theology and ministry, back in March 2016. Dr. Shannen Dee Williams (now an assistant professor of history at Villanova University; she a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville at the time of the interview) was interviewed by CTU Professor Dr. C. Vanessa White on the “hidden history” of African American religious sisters in the U.S “and their fight to dismantle racial and gender barriers in the US Church and in wider US society.”

A little background on Dr. Williams is probably THE scholar when it comes to the history Black Catholic sisters/nuns and Black Catholic religious congregations in the U.S. She is definitely one of the most prominent living historians of African American Catholicism. I say “living” because she’s the legacy of the late Black Benedictine priest-historian Fr. Cyprian Davis, OSB who was in his day the most prolific scholar on the subject before his death in 2015. Dr. Williams knew and was mentored by Fr. Cyprian. In addition to teaching, she has worked for years on research into the history of Black American sisters and orders, and her work will culminate in her upcoming first book Subversive Habits: The Untold Story of Black Catholic Nuns in the United States. I’m definitely copping it when it comes out. As soon as I know it’s out I will let y’all know as well.

As a bonus as I actually got to meet this wonderful scholar earlier this year when she invited to be the speaker for my seminary’s annual African American History Lecture (now named the Fr. Cyprian Davis Lecture) back in February. I covered her talk and all the great history on Black sisters in a post for my apostolate’s celebration of Black History Month here: Seminary’s Black History Lecture on the History of Black Nuns in US recap.

She has a great faith testimony to boot that relates to the topic that became her work. Dr. Williams talks about her faith journey in the video, but she was raised Catholic and at one time was on her way out of the Church until she discovered the hidden history of Black sisters. When she did and began her investigation she learned about the strong and unrelenting faith of many of these sisters who despite terrible racial discrimination (including discrimination endured inside religious orders, which resulted in many lost Black vocations) nevertheless remained faithful Catholics throughout their lives. Through these stories Dr. Williams found the hope and the faith to stay in her faith. And I thank God for that. So I hope you enjoy this short but awesome interview. By her shining a light on the history of Black sisters/nuns Williams’s own life and work is a testimony of Black Catholic history being made today.

Some golden quotes from the video:

When I began this project I was completely unaware of the history of African American women religious. I was completely unaware of the history of black people religious life in the church. I had never seen a black nun depicted outside of a Hollywood film. At no point in my Catholic or public school education was I ever taught about the history of black women religious or the long-standing history of Catholicism among black people around the world. Honestly, I was looking for a graduate topic for a graduate seminar paper at Rutgers University, and I stumbled upon a newspaper article in the Pittsburgh Courier, which announced the formation of the National Black Sisters Conference in 1968, and I experienced what I can only call a metanoia.

I came to this project in a moment which I was about to leave my church – I am a cradle Catholic, but I was planning to leave the church – and I stumbled upon this project, or I was called to this project, in a critical moment. And these women’s testimonies are not only testimonies of an unyielding faith but they are also testimonies of survival. Many of these women who desegregated their communities endured the unspeakable. They encountered racism within the church, within their communities. I will never cease to be amazed by the stories of the women who traveled sometimes hundred and thousands of miles way from their hometowns to enter communities that accepted African Americans.

More on Dr. Shannen Dee Williams:

She’s on twitter as @BlkNunHistorian so hit that follow button real quick to keep up with her and her good work. She’s been tweeting a lot of Black Catholic religious history this month so don’t miss out!

Articles she’s written for America Magazine.

My page on Servant of God Mother Mary Lange who founded the first religious order for Black sisters in the U.S. in 1829, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, to begin your own research.

Also, learn about the history of Afro-American Catholics by picking up Fr. Cyprian Davis’s book The History of Black Catholics in the United States.

Me (center) and some other seminarians with Dr. Shannen Dee Williams after her lecture at the seminary this past February.


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Recent Black Catholic History Month 2019 Posts

This week’s featured Black saint/holy one: Servant of God Julia Greeley

This week’s Let ’em Speak On It: Quote from Servant of God Sr. Thea Bowman

Last week’s featured Black Catholic interview: Mine with Brad Schepisi of Laudare Outreach