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Black Catholic Nuns: A Fascinating and Long-Ignored History


PHOTO ABOVE: This 1898 photo provided by the Sisters of the Holy Family (SSF) shows members of the religious order of African American Nuns in New Orleans. One of the oldest black brotherhoods, the SSF, formed in New Orleans in 1842 because white Louisiana brotherhoods, including the slave-holding Ursuline order, refused to accept African Americans. (SSF via AP)

By David Crary


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 movie ” Sister Law.”

After 14 years of 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 outlines in her preface: that the nearly 200-year history of these nuns in the United States has been ignored or willfully suppressed by those who wanted or disrespected them.

Patricia Gray, a former nun of the Sisters of Mercy, poses for a portrait at the Sewickley Public Library Monday, April 18, 2022, in Sewickley, Pennsylvania. Gray founded the National Conference of Black Sisters in 1968 with the Reverend’s support. John J. Wright, before leaving religious life in 1974. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

“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,” she wrote, describing it. book as proof that their story “always mattered”.

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 formed 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” recount 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.

Six Catholic nuns, including Sister Mary Antona Ebo, front row from left, lead a march in Selma, Alabama on March 10, 1965, in support of black suffrage and to protest Bloody Sunday violence when white state troopers brutally dispersed peaceful black protesters. The group was within a hundred feet of a black church when police blocked their path. (AP Photo/File)

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.

More than two decades before Selma, Ebo faced repeated struggles to overcome racial barriers. She was denied admission to Catholic nursing schools because of her race and later endured segregation policies in the white-led order 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 looking 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 Catholic black history,” while undertaking to interview the founding members of the National Black Sisters’ Conference. As her research expanded, she scoured 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 earliest moves to bring black women into Catholic religious orders.

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 principal 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 Williams’ hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

According to 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 Catholic researchers at Georgetown University. Regardless of race, most of the remaining nuns are elderly, and the influx of young novices is rare.

Williams told the AP that she considered leaving the Catholic Church — in part because of her handling of racial issues — as she began researching black nuns. Hearing their stories revitalized her faith.

“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.”