Black Women and the Making of Catholic History

Black Women and the Making of Catholic History

Mehreen Karim
February 28, 2018

This Black History Month, we looked into our shared history to shed light on notable Black women who have influenced the Catholic Church and community. These Black women and others too often go without their due credit for their teaching and the social change they have inspired. The foundational elements of our faith, especially teachings for justice, can be recognized in the work Black women have done to dismantle racism for centuries. Even through devastating periods of racism and oppression, these women have lived out a deep commitment to justice.

Saint Josephine Bakhita,FdCC (1869-1947)

Impact: Born in rural Sudan, kidnapped and sold into slavery, she converted, gained her freedom, and became a Catholic Sister; canonized in 2000 and named patron saint of Sudan.

The life of Saint Josephine Bakhita reflects the resilience she demonstrated in the face of every trial she experienced. Saint Josephine Bakhita was born in western Sudan, native to the Daju people. As a child, she was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and traded between numerous families. After over a decade of being held in slavery, Bakhita was left in the care of the Canossian Sisters in Venice, Italy. Years after being taken to Italy, Bakhita refused to leave the Canossian Sisters’ convent and was found by a court to have been free since arriving in Italy, since slavery was illegal there.  Josephine Bakhita then became a Canossian Sister and spent five decades as a member of the religious community. After her death, Sister Josephine Bakhita was canonized and became the only patron saint of Sudan. Saint Josephine Bakhita has become an inspiration for many who fight for freedom – both physical determination and spiritual liberty.

Sister Antona Ebo, FSM (1924-2017)

Impact: Civil Rights leader

“I’m here because I’m a Negro, a nun, a Catholic, and because I want to bear witness.”

In response to Bloody Sunday, one of history’s most gruesome assaults against Civil Rights activists, Sister Antona Ebo, a Franciscan Sister of Mary, made her mark as the only Black Catholic sister marching in Selma. Prior to her freedom fighting, Ebo had ambitions to attend nursing school. She was rejected many times until she was the first of three African-American women to enter the St. Mary’s Infirmary School of Nursing in St. Louis, Missouri in 1944. After earning multiple degrees, Sister Antona became a certified chaplain and was a founding member of the National Black Sisters’ Conference in 1968. Her landmark participation in the Civil Rights movement founded the rest of her life’s work in dismantling racism. Sister Antona continued her anti-racism activism for decades after Selma, participating in national movements as recent as the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri before she passed away in 2017.

Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA (1937-1990)

Impact: Nationally-recognized teacher and scholar who promoted education for Black Catholics

“I come to my church fully functioning…I bring my whole history, my tradition, my experience, my culture, my African American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as gift to the church.”

In the heart of protestant Mississippi, a nine year old Thea Bowman converted to Roman Catholicism. As a teen, she joined the Fransiscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Bowman’s parents rightfully feared for their daughter’s ambitions—moving to a white majority city and religious community would prove to be a challenge for any African American, nonetheless a woman religious. Thea would spend years embracing her African American identity, resisting racism, and changing the way African Americans are received in Catholic society. Bowman spent years teaching at schools and universities until she became a consultant for intercultural awareness for the Bishop of Jackson. Here, Bowman spread her wisdom, joy and African American pride through outreach to diverse communities of the Catholic faith. Thea Bowman created and legitimized a way of worship for Black Catholics. Her life’s legacy will live on in the many institutions founded in her name, most relevantly The Sister Thea Bowman Black Catholic Educational Foundation, which has raised money to put over 150 African Americans through college.

Sister Jamie T. Phelps, OP (Present)

Impact: founding Director of Augustus Tolton Program for African American Ministers at Catholic Theological Union

“I became a woman religious but that did not preclude my also being an educator, psychiatric social worker, community organizer, liturgist, choir director, spiritual director, and theologian.”

No list, no matter how exhaustive, could cover the depth of Sister Jamie T. Phelps’ impact on Catholic culture, society, and academia. Phelps was a teenager when she unsuccessfully attempted to join a high school run by Adrian Dominican nuns. Phelps explains that they were “concerned how she, as a young black woman, would adjust to living in all-white environment.” Only a few years would pass until Phelps returned to the Adrian Dominicans and became a Dominican sister herself. Sister Jamie Phelps continued to exert her mind and heart as she piled on professional and academic merits. After earning a doctorate from Catholic University of America, Phelps explored the intersection of sexism, racism, and economic disparities in Catholic society. Today, Sister Jamie Phelps studies these topics in her published research and teaching at various universities.

Dr. Diana L. Hayes (Present)

Impact: First Black woman to earn an S.T.D. (Doctorate of Sacred Theology)

“I am because we are—because African Americans, we see ourselves as a family.”

In her life’s work and teachings, Diana L. Hayes deconstructed the nuances of spirituality in African American Catholic culture. Hayes is the first black American woman to earn a Pontifical doctorate, Sacred Theology degree (S.T.D.) from the Catholic University of Louvain in addition to three honorary doctorates. She was a Professor of Systematic Theology in the Theology Department at Georgetown University where she specialized in Womanist Theology, Black Theology, U.S. Liberation Theologies, Contextual Theologies, Religion and Public Life, and African American and Womanist Spirituality.

Sister Patricia Chappell, SNDdeN, (Present)

Impact: Current Executive Director of Pax Christi USA

“I never thought I could be a sister because I had never seen a black sister. I had never seen a sister who looked like me.”

As a child, Sister Patricia Chappell could not imagine she would become not only a Catholic sister, but the Executive Director of a large Catholic organization. Though Sister Patricia has only recently entered the national limelight as Pax Christi USA’s Executive Director, she had always been a mover and shaker working for racial justice in the Catholic sphere. In the eighties, Sister Patricia Chappell worked in vulnerable areas of Philadelphia and delivered substance-abuse intervention services to African-American youth and their families. Sister Patricia was president of the National Black Sister’s Conference in Washington and also the co-coordinator of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur’s Anti-Racism Team. On the ground, she worked as a program specialist at the Takoma Park Recreation Center in Maryland, in youth centers in Hyattsville, Maryland, and as director of youth ministry at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Church in Washington. D.C. As the Executive Director of Pax Christi USA, Chappell steers the organization and the community to work for justice by organizing and speaking out on racism and other issues. Sister Patricia hopes her work and leadership will connect to everyday Catholics and bring more people into the movement.

During Black History Month and throughout the entire year, we recall the spirit-filled lives and ministries of these Black Catholic women and many others. Let us follow their example and their guidance as we work for racial justice in our communities, including our faith community, and our country.