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The hidden history of Black Catholic nuns in the U.S.

Generations of black Catholic women “fought against racism in order to answer God’s call in their lives,” says Dr. Shannen Dee Williams, author of Subversive Habits: The Untold Story of Black Catholic Nuns in the United States.

Thea Bowman, as a postulant. (Credit: Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration)

Washington D.C., Feb 11, 2021 / 04:10 pm (CNA).- Black Catholic nuns have made manifold contributions to the Church in the United States, and theirs is a story that needs to be told, one historian says.

Generations of black Catholic women “fought against racism in order to answer God’s call in their lives,” said Dr. Shannen Dee Williams of Villanova University, at a virtual Wednesday event hosted by the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

The event was titled “The Real Sister Act: Why the Stories of U.S. Black Catholic Sisters Matter.” The 1992 film “Sister Act,” starring Whoopi Goldberg, highlighted the story of Sister Thea Bowman–one of three African-American sisters under consideration for canonization–who worked to combat racism within the Church.

Williams said on Wednesday that Bowman’s story is not accurately reflected on screen–evidence of ignorance of black Catholic history, both within the Church and in wider society

“What does that say about Hollywood and its imagination, that in the hands of Hollywood, Sister Thea Bowman is not a nun, but a morally ambiguous black woman hiding from this white, married mobster boyfriend after he kills someone?” she said. “Thea spent the vast majority of her life as a nun.”

“There are many within our society and certainly within Hollywood that are not yet ready to grapple with the reality of black Catholic nuns in this nation,” she added.

Williams is the author of “Subversive Habits: The Untold Story of Black Catholic Nuns in the United States.” She said that the stories of black Catholic sisters offer lessons about the U.S. Church and about the fight for racial equality.

In many cases, Williams said, black women were historically barred from white religious communities or were not fully included within the community. In other cases, the stories of black religious sisters in the United States were intentionally erased from official records.

Asked about how black religious sisters view their future, Williams said like their white counterparts, the numbers of African-American sisters in the United States has “dwindled.”

“But if you include African sisters in that number, the number of black sisters in the United States has increased,” Williams said. “Many of the sisters that are going into religious life in both white and black communities are from Africa.”

“What’s clear is, the future of black women in religious life in the United States and female religious life globally may very well be in the hands of where the Church is growing, experiencing exponential growth, and that is in terms of Africa.”

One successful Catholic community of black religious was the Oblates of the Sisters of Providence, the first Catholic U.S. community to accept formerly enslaved women, Williams said.

Another successful black Catholic community was the Sisters of the Holy Family, founded in New Orleans in 1842. They “faced profound resistance,” Williams said, as they were prohibited from wearing veils in public for several decades, and fought to keep their religious habits against the protests of fellow Catholic religious

“These are women who have deep roots in American Catholicism,” Williams said.


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12 Comments

  1. Once any aspect of religion becomes politicized (and this includes “Black” nuns) it sounds the death-knell. This is the basis for so many things that are amiss in the Catholic Church today. When issues of social justice are no longer couched in the message of the Gospel and the mission of the Church but have become weaponized instruments to advance a political agenda, the end is near. Religion is not Politics.

  2. Black women in African countries have been accepted into traditionally all-white congregations for decades. Missionaries from Ireland and other European Countries saw local black women joining their congregations as their legacy to continue their mission into the future. And that is what has happened as the number of European white missionaries – nuns, priests and brothers – decline significantly. Colour has not been a problem for European white missionaries. My book – The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On – illustrates the transition from white to black religious.

    • I saw the ads for that movie, shuddered, and refused to see it. The premise seemed to be that unless you’re whooping and hollering and swaying and yowling you’re not really praising God. Yecccchhhhhhhh.

  3. This article is racist and hateful to me. It demeans all the great sacrafice of the Caucasian nuns. And I don’t believe the Church is growing in Africa. I don’t see any of those Christians speaking up for the black on white genocide of white Christians in South Africa. Maybe this author can look into it. We have a Christian obligation to speak out for the oppressed and combat hypocrisy such as this article.

  4. Historical note: The Catholic Church in America was woefully late to the table after the Civil War in evangelizing the newly freed slaves. The Baptists and Methodists made the greatest efforts, even with segregated congregations, while the Catholic and Episcopalian (Anglican) took a more “come to us” attitude. We are paying for that reluctance today in the small relative numbers of Black Catholics and the attitude of many toward the Church.

  5. Our Irish Catholic ancestors migrated to America in the 19th century. Ireland was wrestling with the potato famine it late 1800s. Grama sang many Irish ditties and told many stories of all white Erin and the influence of the all white Catholic Church, and their terrible Magdalene Laundries run by white Nuns of MY church. That brings me to my social experience of many, if not all Blacks not involved in Catholic rituals or even allowed into our society of bigots. The poor negros, who through no acts of their own, were enslaved by white despots. They needed to be held close to each other to later hear MLK’ saintly and non-violent retort to bigotry in America, (talk about crying)..
    “I have a dream that this nation will rise up and live out the meaning of its creed that all men are created equal”.
    “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
    “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

    When I went to high school it was integrated and I had many Black friends. Most because of classes, choir and sports. Upon graduation I went to college, most Blacks did not. Then after graduation I joined IBM. No Blacks in sight. The company had not yet expanded their workforce with racial equity. After several years as a IT designer, I saw Flip Jackson in a gray maintenance uniform. He had just been hired. Then later my dear and close friend Wester Henderson, our best HS cager yelled to me hey, mister, Jack how are you? Webbie was pushing a tool cart. He too had lost many years of his productive life because he was BLACK! Eight years had passed since I had last saw them. I was one of several thousand all white employees at the programming lab. When I saw Football Flip I almost cried. When I saw Webster I really cried. I have that same emotion about any non-white persons, especially Black Nuns who are so religiously devoted, nurturing and selfless. Models for us all. Fast backwards to 1951 when I was an Altar Server and a lecturer at St. Mary’s Church in the midst of a Black community. I slowly learn Latin and the spelling of lecturer. One day at Mass I asked where are our Black brethren? They, in numbers, stood outside the church and no one invited them in. Then it happened… as I sat in a pew awed as my new Black family friends, the Singletaries, were not only present, but Mother and Father observed carrying the Host and gifts up the middle isle to meet Father Murphy waiting for them relishing the moment with a broad smile. It is mindboggling to hear… “In other cases, the stories of black religious sisters in the United States were intentionally erased from official records.” How dare you! How dare you!

  6. “and their terrible Magdalene Laundries run by white Nuns of MY church.”

    Morgan, your historical knowledge is about on par with that of a mentally handicapped hamster.

    You clearly haven’t bothered to read the government report about the laundries in Ireland (not all of them were in Ireland). It’s much easier to start on one of your hysterical diatribes against the Church.

    What does the Church have to do with IBM or the fact that your high school classmates didn’t go to college and weren’t hired by IBM?

    • Thank you for your criticism. I do not use “alternate facts”. When I studied the laundries/asylums they were indeed originated in Ireland My Gram told me. Reason for them… “read the riot act” to chastise wayward pregnant women by taking their child for adoption. As that research developed I discovered there was a serious miscalculation on the part of the church. They know that “one size does not fit all”. Not all of those “sinful” women fit the picture of wayward sinners. A girl that was
      We are strong parishioners in support of our Church with an eye toward its’ Our past is an albatross that we need to acknowledge and not return to. I need to work harder to lessen the verbose heat. Lincoln had it cold for those of us who stray too far afield. “Best thought a fool rather than open your mouth and REMOVE ALL DOUBT”.

      See the URL
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magdalene_Laundries_in_Ireland#The_Magdalene_Sisters

      • Catholics were first in the US in 1560’founding St. Augustine,FL; also active on Santa Fe area in 1610.
        Unwed poor pregnant girls in Ireland and other countries had few to no choices: Family could chip in and sendher off, to return with a new cousin.
        Often put out of the house — The found work in menial tasks or in prostitutionn.Compareted to other availble options,the Magdalines may have been best choice; and not all were as shown in the documentary or movie.

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