Seminary’s Black History Lecture on the History of Black Nuns in US recap
I wanted to give a fully recap of this year’s annual Black History Lecture my seminary had. The topic, again, was “The Real Sister Act: Black Catholic Sisters in the United States.” The lecture was given by a young up-and-coming Black historian Dr. Shannen Dee Williams. She is an assistant professor at Villanova University. The lecture was given this past Tuesday night at 7:00pm after our house meetings.
After the lecture and the following Q and A was over, I made this brief recap of the event here and on my social media:
“Dr. Shannon Dee Williams rocked the house with her presentation tonight! She was so jammed packed full of knowledge of the plight of Black religious sisters throughout Black Catholic history in the U.S. She told a long and hard story but one that needs to be told and heard by more and more, especially us Catholics. It is one that hardly anyone knows about. Religious sister already often lead a hidden life; thats part of the vocation, but Black sisters had to lead a double hidden life – One for the regular vocation, two for their skin color. Rejected from being in orders, having to deny their blackness in orders by passing as white with them (and orders keeping it a secret), facing persecution in the orders. One thing Dr. Williams hammered home was the lost Black vocations because of it. BUT through all that Black sisters STILL kept the faith! Still remained true to the calling God gave them. Even founded an order or two! The story is hard, but there is still a lot in the story of Black Catholic sisters that ALL of us Catholics should own and be proud of! These Black sisters were our sisters, too!”
Now, I just want to add some more of the greatly informative things she said about the history of Black sisters in the U.S. to give a fuller recap, as promised.
Going into the lecture, I was not extremely well-versed in this history. I knew about the start of the Oblate Sisters of Providence based in Baltimore, the first permanent Black religious order started in America. Servant of God Mother Mary Lange and a few other sisters founded the order along with a French priest named Fr. James Nicholas Joubert, SS (Society of the Priests of Saint-Sulpice) in 1828. Earlier this month, I featured Mother Lange for my apostolate’s Black History Month celebrations and as a Black (And Catholic) Like Me article-series entry. She has been added to my Black Saints/Holy Ones page. So, go and check those out for more of my information on her and the founding of her religious order. And I figured that if any other Black order was founded or any Black woman wanted to be become a sister they without a doubt must have faced racial discrimination and persecution while trying to live out God’s call. But that was the extent of my knowledge, and had not looked deeper. Plus, right now my interest in something related resides in just learning more of the history of Black Catholics in America along with the history of Black Catholic priests in America. So, with my ignorance fully established, Dr. Williams was primed to blow my socks off with her presentation.
And, boy, did she ever.
As her lecture began and went on I soon found myself wishing I had brought a notebook jot down all the wonderful history she was gifting us. All the notebooks a seminarian like me has and I couldn’t think bringing not ONE of them! But at least I had my phone with me to take pictures of her powerpoint slides of the pictures of the Black sisters. Because I didn’t take notes but tried to keep a good amount of info in my head, I will only talk about 2 major points from the lecture that I remember, and the rest will be bullet points.
Major point 1: The story of the first U.S. Black sister parallel the story to the first U.S Black priests in many ways. Both were rejected from just about every institution in America, and had to go outside the U.S. in order to follow God’s call with more success. Both eventually had to found their own institutions in America for the purpose of Black vocations – example: The Josephites (Black priests), Oblate Sisters of Providence (Black sisters). Both faced intense racism both inside and outside institutions if accepted and ordained/vowed. Both histories begin in the mid-late 1800s in the South. Both started in small numbers and built up over time; time for most growth in the 20th century. Like Fr. Tolton, there was a Black sister who was rejected by orders in U.S., found opportunity in Europe, sent back to the States to serve. Many others.
Major Point 2: She stressed the fact very much that during this time of persecution of Black sisters for well over a century (1828-1980s) many Black vocations to religious life were lost due to racism. This and the general racism that the Black Catholic community face plays a profound role as to why there are not many Black American sisters in religious orders today in the U.S. I add also the same thing explains why there are so few Black priests as well. God only knows how many holy Black sisters and priest there would be, if only . . .
Various points from lecture:
- Most Black women prevented from joining orders only the basis of color. The latest incident of denial based on race that Dr. Williams said occurred in the 1980s (early 80s I believe).
- 4 orders
- Many admittances were due to passing for white.
- Most Black women joined established black orders, mostly the Oblates Sisters of Providence, especially when rejected by other orders.
- Oblate Sisters would make it a mission to be present at the all ceremonies when any Black sister made their vows regardless of order when they were accepted.
- Some of the orders that integrated were internally segregated. Black sisters made vows separately and lived separately from White sisters.
- There was an instance of a Black order in South that was established (I don’t remember where she she said, but was during the 20th century). When the building for their order was bought word got around. The sisters were threatened and lay men volunteered to guard the sisters. It was threatened to be burned down. Eventually, they had get the authorities to help protect them.
- Orders often hid the fact they had Black sisters. One order that was founded by a mulatto (mixed-race) woman in the 1800s and who served as the superior later suppressed this fact in their later records and hid evidence in their archives for decades until much later when they finally admitted their past.
- Black sisters were made to take a vow of silence to never mention racist actions committed against them or their background.
- A large number of Black sisters left orders due to the racism they faced to try their chances with another order. The Oblate Sisters played a huge roll in catching some of these sisters when they left orders. Some left religious life all together.
- Black women were often denied in both North and South, but some often tried to avoid even Black orders in the South due to being so close to the centers of Jim Crow.
- Some sisters bravely stayed in orders even while facing racist treatment.
- A lot still Black sisters who left orders still kept the faith.
- Black sisters where often the biggest advocates for Black priests/seminarians/prospects who were rejected and persecuted just like the sisters/prospective sisters.
- Black women who wanted to join orders often found support and advocacy from sympathetic White priests.
- Played major role in the education of Blacks (some led to Black vocations).
- Other women of color (Hispanics, Asians) often faired better in being accepted and welcomed in orders.
- Strangely, native African women were accepted in U.S. orders more frequently than African American women.
Here are pictures I took of the event. I was very glad of how much she showed the faces of the Black sisters in her slides! This is very important!
After the Q and A, we took her on a tour of the Black Catholic history hall we have at the seminary. Then I was able to get a pic with her with some of my brother seminarians. Since she worked with the renowned late great scholar of Black Catholic American history Fr. Cyprian Davis, OSB (Benedictine priest and monk at Saint Meinrad Archabbey, the community that runs the seminary and school of theology) before he died and who helped her on her own research, I got her to sign my copy of Davis’ landmark book The History of Black Catholics in the United States. She is, in a most profound way, the legacy of Fr. Cyprian, so it seemed highly fitting.
Since all this is only going off my own limited memory, I have provided a link that details more about Dr. Williams’ work and will provide more of the info that I have only alluded to generally. This is an older article from 2015, so some info could also be a little bit outdated: HERE
All of her work will culminate in a book that she is currently revising the manuscript for, Subversive Habits: The Untold Stories of Black Catholic Sisters in the United States. Definitely a MUST-pick-up when that bad boy ( or should I say girl) drops.
Now, the only question on my mind is this: what about the Black men trying to enter orders during this time as well?
May God bless Dr. Williams on her most important work!