The Uncommon Phenomenon of Black Nuns: Why?

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

In her Feb. 1 lecture, Dr. Shannen Dee Williams made two points that raised a baffling question. One, Catholicism was the first black articulation of Christianity in the United States, and, two, the vast majority of Catholics in America have not been European, but are people of African and Native American descent. So why are black sisters even today an uncommon phenomenon? Williams unpacked the answer to that question.

Williams is an associate professor of history at the University of Dayton. Her book “Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle” was among the top five book on religion published in 2022 and received the Letitia Woods Brown Award for Best Book on African American Women’s History.

Williams grew up Catholic and black, but she acknowledged, “I knew very little about black history beyond my own family.” In a graduate studies seminar on black history, contemplating a paper on black Catholic women’s history, Williams discovered an article about the 1968 National Black Sisters’ Conference (NBSC). “I was unaware of the existence of black nuns in our church,” Williams said. Her mother concurred, “only white sisters taught us.”

Williams tracked down Patricia Grey, founder of the NBSC. Grey bore the distinction of being the first sister of African American descent admitted into the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Three years earlier, in 1960, Grey had been denied admittance by the Sisters of St. Josephs founded in 1836, an order long honored for its selfless service. “I don’t want to look back,” Grey repeatedly told Williams, but she finally agreed to talk.

Williams set upon a journey of recovering the voices of the black women “ignored, dismissed, and assigned to myth.” She calls the story she found “a chapter on colonialism and segregation in the church, both male and female … an overlooked chapter in the freedom struggle.”

In 1828, two free women of color, Elizabeth Lange and Maria Balas, founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, Md., the first Roman Catholic sisterhood in the world established by women of African descent. Other orders had denied the women admittance, in keeping with the prevailing belief women born into slavery were not fit for the religious life. A French priest assisted the two women who came to his attention as teachers of black children. The Oblate sisters accepted women born into slavery and those still enslaved. Women entering the sisterhood were expected to bring a dowry. Many black women found donors to satisfy the requirement. However, the Oblate sisters refused to accept enslaved people as part of the dowry.

Some nuns left the Oblate sisters to found orders in Michigan and Georgia. When the French priest died, the church told the Oblate sisters “go back to the world.” A Belgian priest took up the sisters’ cause. The Oblate sisters opened missions in Philadelphia and New Orleans where black women were refused admission to existing Catholic orders. Initially, the black sisters were not allowed to wear habits and, later, not allowed to wear the same habits as sisters in white orders. The Oblate sisters took in children of lynching victims, victims of the Tulsa Massacre, and were themselves attacked by white supremist, when joining black sisters to support their efforts to desegregate white Catholic communities and allow black women to join the sisterhood.

In the 1940s, following WWII, the mother of a Chicago order appealed to her superiors for help with the “colored girls” applicant “problem.” A New York priest would ask, “Are we Catholic enough to accept black vocations?” The answer Williams said was a firm “no.”

Williams cited a curious phenomenon, Catholic orders in the United States were more likely to accept black women born outside the United States. “The vast majority of black communities in the United States have never taken a U.S. born black woman,” Williams said. Many black women had to leave the United States to enter the sisterhood.

Researching the story solidified Williams fraying bond with her faith “I had one foot outside of the church when I came to the project. I didn’t see my place in the church … As these women were telling me their stories, they were also preaching to me ... communities started inviting me in … but the archive can only tell you so much.” Many black women never applied because their teachers discouraged them from doing so. Black women admitted were relegated to the role of domesticate servitude and not educated. In the 1960s, orders began requesting photographs so they would know if the applicants were black. “Thousands of vocations were lost to the church,” Williams said. “Communities trying to reconcile, to welcome in diversification now are having to grapple with the realization they did not welcome in people before and now they don’t have the leadership and experience and in certain instances it’s too late.”

In 2020, the Sisters’ of St. Josephs made a formal apology to Dr. Patricia Grey for rejecting her application for admittance in 1960. In 1974, Grey left religious life and pursued a career outside the church. When Grey learned of the apology, she wept.

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