Among the women Williams interviewed extensively was Patricia Gray, a nun of The Sisters of Mercy and founder of NBSC before leaving religious life in 1974.
Gray shared the painful memories of the 1960s with the Associated Press. At that time, as an ambitious nurse, she was refused to be a member of the Catholic Order because she was black.
“I was very hurt and disappointed. I couldn’t believe it,” she said of reading the refusal letter. “I remember breaking it, and I didn’t want to see it again or rethink it.”
Gray was initially reluctant to support “destructive habits,” but urged Williams to write about the “little sung, poorly studied history” of American black nuns. Later, I finally shared her own story and her personal archive.
“If you can, tell us all about us,” Gray told her.
Williams set out to do just that – while conducting more than 100 interviews, he scrutinized overlooked archives, previously sealed church records, and out-of-print books.
“I have witnessed a deep and unfamiliar history of being told and revising much of what is written about the American Catholic Church and the black places in it,” writes Williams. “Because most of the churches of colonialism, slavery and separation are not recognized and it is impossible to tell the black sisters’ journey in the United States accurately and honestly without confronting the unreconciled history. . ”
Historians were unable to identify the country’s first black Catholic nun, but Williams talks about some of the early moves to take black women to Catholic monastic orders.
One of the oldest black sisters, the Sisters of the Holy Family, was formed in New Orleans in 1842 after white Louisiana sisters, including the Urslin Order of Slavery, refused to accept African Americans.
Henriette DeLille, the main founder of the New Orleans Order, and Mary Lange, the founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, are three black nuns in the United States designated by the Catholic authorities as saints. Is one of them. The other is the beloved educator, evangelist, and singer Thea Bowman, who died in Mississippi in 1990 and was buried in Williams’ hometown of Memphis.
Studying the less prominent nuns, Williams faced many challenges. For example, she tracked Catholic sisters, known by her contemporaries by religious name, but listed by secular name in the archive.
Among many pioneers is Sister Cola Marie Billings, who became the first black man to enroll in the Philadelphia Sisters of Mercy at the age of 17 in 1956. Later, she was the first black nun to teach at a Catholic high school in Philadelphia and co-founder of the National Black Sisters Conference.
In 1990, when Billings was appointed as the idyllic coordinator of the St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Richmond, Virginia, Billings became the first black woman to manage a Catholic parish in the United States.
“I have experienced many situations of racism and oppression throughout my life,” Billings told The Associated Press. “But for some reason, I processed it and then continued.”
According to recent figures from the American Catholic Bishops’ Council, there are about 400 African-American religious sisters out of a total of about 40,000 nuns.
According to statistics compiled by Catholic researchers at Georgetown University, the overall figure is only a quarter of the 160,000 nuns in 1970. Whatever their race, many of the remaining nuns are elderly and the influx of youthful beginners is sparse.
The Baltimore-based Oblate Sisters of Providence, according to its prestigious general, Sister Rita Michel Proctor, used to have more than 300 members, but now has less than 50 members, most of them in Baltimore suburbs. I live in.
“We are small, but still about serving God and His people,” Proctor said. “Most of us are elderly, but as long as God calls us, we still want to do that.”
Even if the rank goes down, the Oblate Sisters continue to run the St. Francis Academy, founded in Baltimore by Mary Lange in 1828. .. ”
Williams said in an interview with AP that he was considering leaving the Catholic Church when he began his studies of black nuns. She said that listening to their history in their own voice rejuvenated her faith.
“When these women were telling me their story, they were also preaching to me in a very beautiful way,” Williams said. “It wasn’t done in a way that reflected anger — they already made their peace with it, despite the immoral discrimination they faced.”
According to Williams, what keeps her in the church right now is her dedication to these women who chose to share their stories.
“It took a lot of time for them to get it out,” she said. “I am in awe of the fidelity of these women.”
Black Catholic Nun: A compelling, long-overlooked history
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