Why I Study Women Religious
by Shannen Dee Williams
Assistant Professor of History, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
The only Catholic sisters that I knew growing up in my southern suburban parish in the 1980s and1990s were the ones I saw on television. Most were fictional characters, and almost all were of white European descent. Although Oscar-winner Whoopi Goldberg’s performances as Dolores Van Cartier/ Sister Mary Clarence in the Sister Act films forced me to expand my imagination regarding who I thought could portray nuns, they never once prompted me to consider the historical possibility of black women religious. And, since I had not been taught anything about the long and rich history of black sisters (or black Catholicism) in school or church, I—in my youthful naiveté—accepted the film’s underlying message with very little resistance. The mere idea of a black nun, no matter how talented and lovable, was nothing short of fraudulent, or worse yet, another one of Hollywood’s bad black jokes. Real sisters were white.
Unfortunately, the 2,000-year-old history of black female religious life remained hidden to me until I entered graduate school at Rutgers University in 2006. And even then, I only encountered it by chance. While searching for a paper topic in a seminar in African-American history, I stumbled upon a newspaper article reporting on the formation of the National Black Sisters’ Conference (NBSC) at Mount Mercy College (now Carlow University) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1968. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I could name several black women who had dared to embrace religious life in the U.S. Church. I could also name the congregations to which these sisters belonged and say that they were black and Catholic, and undeniably proud of those two facts.
Sister Martin de Porres Grey, RSM, was elected the first president of the National Black Sisters' Conference in 1968. This photo was taken in September 1964.
Shocked by my discovery, I began scouring research databases and the Internet for any mention of the NBSC and the sisters whose names I had collected. While the material available was disturbingly scant, I soon discovered that many of the NBSC founders had desegregated their historically white congregations after World War II. I read in uneasy amazement as many confessed to having believed that they were the only black sister in the United States prior to receiving the invitation to the first NBSC meeting. I also read in horror as many recounted enduring years of racist discrimination, abuse, and neglect in their orders and the predominantly white communities in which they labored.
From the few published books on black religious by pioneering scholars such as Father Cyprian Davis, OSB, and Diane Batts Morrow, I learned of the existence of the nation’s historically black sisterhoods, founded first in the 19th century to ensure the development of black female religious life and a non-racist articulation of Catholicism in the Western world. And from my earliest oral history interviews, I listened intently as elderly black sisters recounted their heartbreaking experiences of discrimination within the universal Church, including being rejected for admission into the all-white sisterhoods that had educated them.
Thoroughly unsettled by how inaccessible black sisters’ lives and history had been to me—a cradle black Catholic and aspiring historian of black women—I committed myself to learning as much about black religious throughout the world as possible. I also decided to join a small community of scholars working to document this subversive history.
Since 2007 I have conducted research in more than 20 archives and collected over 75 oral history interviews with current and former black sisters. I have also interviewed other individuals who have worked with or were educated by black women religious, as well as a handful of elderly black laywomen whose calls to religious life were thwarted by the collusion of racism and segregation in the Church.
At times I have felt overwhelmed by the emotional weight of gut-wrenching testimonies from my sister interviewees. But I’ve refused to abandon the project. Black sisters and their history came into my life at the very moment that I was planning to leave the Church, and I don’t think it was a coincidence.
Neither do the people that I interview. Abandoning the project would also amount to me saying that the lives and labors of sisters of black African descent, whose history predates the development of female religious life in Europe by two centuries, and whose future in the 21st-century Church seems exceptionally bright, do not matter. And that is simply untrue.
Black sisters’ experiences of Catholicism challenge and revise so much of what we know and what we think we know about the Church. Indeed, one cannot tell the history of black sisters (or Catholicism) anywhere in the Atlantic world without confronting the Church’s egregious sin history of racism, slavery, colonialism, segregation, and exclusion. But the history of black sisters is not all pain and degradation. Their lives and testimonies also document a vibrant and longstanding Catholicism among black people and a history of black and white resistance to white supremacy that has yet to be fully explored and examined.
I will never cease to be amazed by women like Sister Gwynette Proctor, SNDdeN, a descendant of Catholic slaves from southern Maryland who steadfastly refused to abandon her call to religious life despite being spat upon (literally) by white Catholic parents and children as she walked to the parochial school that she and several of her family members desegregated in the 1950s. While the thousands of black vocations likely lost to the Church due to longstanding racism and the
exclusionary admissions policies of segregated white sisterhoods remain the Church’s shame, the black women and girls who resolved to answer God’s call no matter what, traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to enter communities that accepted “colored” and “Negro” candidates, stand atop the greatest testimonies of the Catholic experience.
Their unyielding faith in the face of unholy discrimination proves that Catholicism can be free of white supremacy and racism, and anyone invested in a full and honest accounting of the Catholic experience has an obligation to ensure that the lives and sacrifices of black sisters are never erased, marginalized, or reduced to myth. I am simply committed to doing my part.
This column appeared in the History of Women Religious section of the Fall 2015 American Catholic Studies Newsletter.