By Ralph E. Moore, Jr.,
Special to the AFRO
If you have ever had your hand slapped by a sister in school or you were treated lovingly, I recommend a book for you: “Subversive Habits-Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle,” by Dr. Shannen Dee Williams.
Catholic nuns, particularly, are viewed in society as sweet and kind or gruff and hard-edged with “no in-between to choose.” And most sisters are White, which means many in America have either never or have rarely seen a Black nun.
Folks in Baltimore are fortunate. Blacks sisters started St. Frances Academy in 1828 and became the first religious order founded for women of African descent in 1829. The school and the religious congregation continue to exist.
The Oblate Sisters of Providence came into being because the White religious orders refused to admit the four Black women who wanted to become sisters by joining existing sisterhoods.
Elizabeth Lange, Mary Rosine Boegues, Mary Frances Balas and Mary Theresa Duchemin, all rejected, received permission from Pope Gregory XVI to start their own “separate but equal” congregation, decades before the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision of 1896.
The Pope endorsed segregation rather than encouraged or directed religious communities to racially integrate—and so, they didn’t.
That is what Williams’ book is about—the struggles of Black and Brown women who wanted to consecrate their lives to God by serving in the convent. But it’s approaches are mind boggling, “How can a church organization can be White supremacist and still consider themselves Gospel-correct, good Catholics?” And yet they did then, and some still do.
From the book’s introduction, “Subversive Habits” broadens understandings of the “Long fight for African-American freedom by turning attention to the social, educational, and political struggles waged by Black Roman Catholic sisters from their fiercely contested beginnings in the nineteenth century slave South to the present day.”
Sister Annette Beecham, formerly Superior General of the Oblate Sisters of Providence once wrote in an article in the AFRO American Newspaper, “Before there was Martin, Malcolm or Medgar, there was Mother Lange.” Black women religious were pushing boundaries (such as illegally teaching children of enslaved persons to read the Bible at the beginning of the 19th Century) at personal risks to themselves.
Shannen Williams’ book chronicles the bold steps and persistence African-American sisters took to debunk their rejection by white orders that insisted Black women lacked souls and/or virtue suitable to be admitted to them. The insistence that only White sisters were qualified to teach Black children in Catholic schools was indicative of the White supremacist tenet of their superior intelligence and skill and the lack of those qualities among women of African descent. Even the renowned, first Catholic Bishop in the United States, John Carroll, is quoted as defending anti-Black disdain and segregation as “Prejudice that had to be kept as the last safeguard of morals.”
Racial prejudice and discrimination were deeply- are deeply- woven into the DNA of the Catholic Church.
Read the book to learn how sisters of color persisted in applying to religious orders that rejected them, how they lived with White sisters who racially harassed them and withstood the insults to their professionalism from within by their being assigned to kitchen duty, housekeeping and food service. Black nuns withstood all of this while being denied opportunities to teach or administer schools.
Read the book to understand how Black nuns got into the center of the civil rights movement. Yet by the time the civil rights movement was in full gear, the sisters had been fighting for racial justice for decades starting with fighting for the right to education of Black and Brown children. Black sisters, Williams writes, were systematically discriminated against in obtaining college and advanced degrees once state certification was required in all schools.
Teaching certificates were required and colleges barred Black nuns from attaining them without fights. And so, they did. Read of their organizing on local, state, national and international levels to counter the Catholic Church’s moves that systematically decreased Catholic education for Black children and limited opportunity for Black sisters. It is all there in detail.
Three passages from the book about Black nuns struck me most deeply:
1) At her profession ceremony, for example, five of the sisters with whom Sherill Adams entered the Baltimore province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) loudly yelled “nigger” in unison and snickered as she walked down the back path of the motherhouse to join her family (page 129).
2) Beyond the steady closings of Black Catholic schools and parishes despite Black demands and protests, the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan’s historic 1974 vote to admit (White) Catholics for the first time in its history proved consequential to Black Catholics. Once reviled and targeted by the nation’s first domestic terrorist group, White Catholics had become worthy of Klan membership because of their widespread opposition to racial justice during the civil rights era. (Page 229)
3) Sister Thea Bowman, the first and only Black sister in the religious order she entered, even to date, The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, died of cancer at age 52. And Father Augustus Tolton, the first Black priest in the U.S. died at age 43. Henriette DeLille of New Orleans, founder of the Holy Family Sisters in New Orleans, died at age 49. (Page 264)
The stress of Catholic Church rejection contributed greatly to their deaths at such early ages. Racism sickens and kills.
This outstanding book,“Subversive Habits,” is well-researched, quite revealing and a set of history and reality lessons of how Black sisters kept the faith and made the Catholic Church change. Much more is still in need of change, they would agree.
The presence of Black Catholic Women and men religious as well as Black and Brown lay Catholic membership teach and remind the White Catholic Church who God really is.
One cannot be a good Catholic and a White supremacist at the same time.
Catholic sisters in their struggles within the Catholic Church have always said, “Pick one, but you cannot be both.” Their presence in the Catholic Church says, “God loves everyone equally.” Williams’ book is about the historic delivery of that message.
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