‘Black Sisters Matter’: Black Nuns Facing Racism in America Called ‘Dangerous Memory’

Shannen Dee Williams, assistant professor in the department of history at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, addresses the Leadership Conference of Women Religious assembly in Atlanta Aug. 10. She spoke about racism and U.S. religious life. (Credit: CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin.)
Shannen Dee Williams, assistant professor in the department of history at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, addresses the Leadership Conference of Women Religious assembly in Atlanta Aug. 10. She spoke about racism and U.S. religious life. (Credit: CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin.)

In early American history black women could be accepted into orders of nuns only if they could “pass for white,” and later they faced significant racial prejudice. Despite all that, they became role models for the black community in America and served as spiritual leaders.Black women desiring to serve a life devoted to the Catholic faith were not welcomed by religious communities with anti-black acceptance requirements from the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, said historian Shannen Dee Williams.

Those who could gain admittance faced discrimination from their fellow sisters, she added.

“Black sisters matter, but they constitute a dangerous memory for the church,” said Williams, assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

She was joined by Sister Anita Baird, a Daughter of the Heart of Mary, and Sister Dawn Tomaszewski, general superior of the Sisters of Providence, on an Aug. 12 panel discussing racism in religious life at the assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in Atlanta.

Williams’ upcoming book is called “Subversive Habits: Black Nuns and the Long Struggle to Desegregate Catholic America.” It was the subject of her doctoral dissertation at Rutgers University.

Later, scores of sisters walked from the LCWR assembly being held in the Hilton Atlanta to Centennial Olympic Park to pray on the plaza outside the Center for Civil and Human Rights, which is dedicated to the achievements of the U.S. civil rights and worldwide human rights movements.

Earlier, the participants wrote on slips of paper when they and their religious communities have not welcomed people of color. The slips became a “chain of bondage,” which was later broken after prayers of lamentation and a blessing.

Williams’ presentation was titled “Shattering the Silence: Black Women and the Challenge of History.”

Raised in Atlanta and a graduate of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Williams said her research proved a challenge to her faith at first, but later she was inspired by the witness of women to remain a Catholic. She said her research can help serve racial reconciliation since the first step toward reconciliation is acknowledging the truth.

The first black woman recognized as the leader of a religious community dates to the first century. She was St. Iphigenia, a princess from east Africa who converted to Christianity through the witness of St. Matthew, Williams said.

She is not well known in the United States, but there are shrines to St. Iphigenia in Brazil and Central America, she said, noting that the devotion was carried with enslaved people from Africa to the Western Hemisphere as a result of the slave trade.

Looking at early American history, religious congregations in the 19th century had a test for accepting black women: if they could “pass for white,” she said. But even if they were admitted, they faced discrimination, such as being forced to take vows separately, she said.

These women in religious life were put in subservient roles, as domestics to the community, said Williams. They also could be cut off from their culture and family if the congregation forbade visitors out of concern that family members might look black, she said.

Others pursued their vocation by traveling to Europe to join religious communities that were more welcoming, she said.

African-American women began to form their own religious communities. The first, started in 1829, was the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore. About nine predominantly black religious communities were formed by women who held fast to their faith, she said.

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Source: CRUX | Andrew Nelson