Tag Archives: Black Catholic History Month

Black Catholic History Month Reflections: Sister Josita Colbert

Black Catholic History Month Reflections: Sister Josita Colbert, SNDdeN

Susan Dennin and Virginia Schilder
November 29, 2023

Sr. Josita’s involvement in Black Sisters’ organizing began in August 1968, when Sr. Martin de Porres Grey, a Mercy Sister in Pittsburgh, organized a weeklong conference for about 200 Black Sisters at Carlow College. This was the beginning of the National Black Sisters’ Conference.

Sr. Josita Colbert, SNDdeN

“[At that conference,] there was a lot of education about what the Black Power movement meant. It was an educational and spiritual experience. There was singing and music that made liturgy much more meaningful. We had a Black priest there, and at the first Mass, Sister Teresita Weind, SNDdeN preached. It was so refreshing there, even though the meetings were long! And we had speakers who would come in. They were really trying to explain the whole system of the Black Power movement and Nguzo Saba principles. We had Jesse Jackson… a lot of famous speakers. It was a little over a week, the first time we met. We met a couple of times at Carlow, and then we moved marto Dayton.”

A central theme of those early meetings, according to Sr. Josita, was that coming to know and love oneself, especially as Black women religious, is critical for being able to teach and empower others.

“During that time, the organizers were trying to help us learn about ourselves and appreciate who we were as Black religious women — but also how to better empower those who we taught, because most of us were teachers. It was almost like a reeducation, in terms of how we could teach differently, especially about Africa. It was learning to respect our people, the way we look, our hair, our features… that they are all beautiful, and God made us. It was a whole learning of oneself, and respecting of oneself. The intent was that if you believe these things about yourself, and internalize them, then it’s reflected not just in what you tell other students, but what they see.

We had workshops that would empower you, whether it be in spiritual direction, or working in civic, political, or church activities. They taught us how to enhance those who you were responsible to, and how to build their leadership skills. I think my style of teaching was different as a result of going to the conference.

When I think back about it, my own family and the people in our church— lay people who led various activities—they also taught us these skills, and about taking on responsibilities. My family was very active in the church, and they were very open and accepting of people. When I came to the conference, they were telling us about being open and sharing with others the skills you have. That’s what the people in the church did. That connected with me, in terms of how I taught and interacted with others. I learned not to have rash judgments of people, and instead to try to accept them.”

Sr. Josita cited a few Christian principles of Nguzo Saba as central in her formation:

“One was Nia: having purpose in whatever you do. When I think about the life of Jesus, or some of the early saints, they focus on what they were called to do, and helping others learn more about God and themselves. Another one is Imani: faith, and believing in God. I look back to my family: they were faithful in what they did and how they treated other people. It’s believing in God, that God will see us through, and also believing in yourself. And certainly if you do that, then you have a belief in others and a respect for the personhood of other people.

And then the other is a long word, Kujichagulia: self-determination. That’s what the educational part of the conference was all about. You hear so many negative things about Black people; you hear about those orders of priests and nuns who would not readily take in Black women or Black men simply because of the pigmentation of their skin – blatant racism. Self-determination meant to me to be focused on what you’re supposed to be about, as a Black religious woman, as a Christian. Focus on that. Don’t dwell on the negative stuff, because it gets in the way of the mission, what we’re supposed to be doing.

Those are the three principles that I stuck with, all relating to God and to self.”

Sr. Josita shared about her experiences of Black Sisters working together, providing support to one another and to young people, as advocates and mentors. In particular, she spoke about supporting Black women in vocations to religious life.

Sr. Josita Colbert, SNDdeN speaks at NETWORK's 50th anniversary celebration in Washington in April 2022.

Sr. Josita Colbert, SNDdeN speaks at NETWORK’s 50th anniversary celebration in Washington in April 2022.

“I try to tell younger ones today, when they talk about what they go through, to focus. … I have had opportunities to do workshops in various parishes. These have been learning opportunities for me, helping students and young people to be involved in their churches, to be active members of the church. There are a lot of African American youth that were so involved in their communities, but not in their Catholic Church because we didn’t provide them with opportunities. They have to be a part of the conversation.

In those days, we had a committee. If one of the younger sisters had a problem, we’d ask to speak with the superior, and work with them, to be advocates and mentors. We’d work with Black sisters and with the community.

We’d also have conversations with leadership of various communities, to talk about tips for working with and inviting African American women to religious life — and what to do when they’re there, visiting all-white communities. In the early days, we tried to educate white religious communities, but it didn’t seem to change the behavior. Most women would say, ‘We’ve never been around Black people.’ And then you point out, ‘What about sister so and so?!’ Were they invisible? They weren’t seen.

One sister called me and said, ‘Things in 2023 have not changed – what did we do back in the 60s and 70s?’ I said, I’m doing things differently. It may be through writing, talking, engaging, having meetings with LCWR, with the National Religious Vocations Conference… we need to get on those committees. Shirley Chisholm said, if you go to the table and there’s not a seat, take a chair up there! We were trying to explain that God calls Black people to the religious life as well. … And it was so important to know that there were others doing the same work. You could call people, you could write – you knew there were others out there doing the same thing.

Most of my life I did teaching and then I became a vocations director, listening to women’s stories. I worked with women who were white, Black, Latina. It made no difference: [they shared] what they felt God called them to do.”

Sr. Josita also spoke at length about the role Sr. Thea Bowman has played in her life, especially as a source of courage and grounding in clarity about “who and whose you are.”

“You are Black, you are Catholic, you are a religious woman. You bring yourself to the Church. sr. Thea’s thing was that, you don’t turn me off because I’m Black. At a conference, she sang a Gospel song and people would look at her strangely, not realizing she was a keynote speaker.

Her thing was that you had to be clear about who you were, and feel certain about that, so that you don’t let anyone tear you down because of who you are. [It’s about] doing the right thing, being like Jesus, and if you’re religious looking at your mission statement and constitutions that are written so very beautifully, being accepting and open…

We as humans sometimes do just the opposite of the things we’ve written. What is our mission statement trying to guide us to do, and what does that mean to me as a Black woman? Sr. Thea spoke truth. Trying not to hurt anyone; just trying to share. Sr. Thea was a humble woman. She loved life. Do what it is the Spirit moves you to do – that’s always the right thing to do.

When I think about Sr. Thea, it’s about remembering who and whose you are, so that you can then go out and do the mission, do what you have to do, as long as you aren’t hurting anyone violently or tearing anyone’s personhood down. We try to respect others as human beings. That’s what Sr. Thea did.”

Sr. Josita cited Angela Davis’ “I’m changing the things I cannot accept” as a point of guidance for her prayer and justice actions. Through her teaching, vocational mentorship, and service on various committees, Sr. Josita shares her voice in service of a more just future for Black Catholics.

“We place ourselves in situations in which we can strive to effect the changes that can be made. We look at how we can invite members of leadership teams, vocation directors, and organizations to be a part of conversations and education. It’s not just us being educated, but trying to work with other people.  We’re trying to get people to read Subversive Habits by Shannon Dee Williams!

[At the Black Sisters conferences,] we learned that it’s important that you’re a part of the decision-making. Bring the chair with you! I was on a bishop’s advisory board. If something was not inclusive, I tried to make sure that whatever the documents and mission statement and goals are, they are inclusive to all, not just one group of people.

A seventh grader asked me, “Why do people hate Black people? What’s wrong with me?” I’m saying, Oh God, how do I answer this question? I said, there’s nothing wrong with you. God made you, God made all of us. We need to learn how to accept and respect the differences that exist among us. We’re supposed to be like Jesus, and Jesus didn’t reject anyone. I fight the fight so that those behind me don’t have to do it, so that they won’t have to endure hatred, so that they’ll be accepted for who they are and their contributions.

Sr. Thea had a way of getting across to others, speaking on behalf of Black people and on behalf of what was just and right. It’s not easy! You have to have a relationship with God, otherwise it’s not gonna work. How do we do this with others not so much in words, but in deeds and actions in our churches, schools, work and ministries?”

Happy All Saints Day and Black Catholic History Month

Happy All Saints Day and Black Catholic History Month

Listen to Sr. Patty Chappell’s Reflections on Sr. Thea Bowman

November 1, 2023

November 1 is All Saints Day and the beginning of Black Catholic History Month. Take a couple minutes with Sr. Patty Chappell, SNDdeN. Hear about how she found community with other Black Sisters and first encountered Sr. Thea Bowman, who is now on the path to sainthood, in their midst.

Sr. Patty recounts how, “when [she] saw that some of the Sisters were in habits, some were wearing dashikis, some had pressed hair, some had full blown stylish afros, all from different religious communities, different skin tones … oh the beauty of our Sisters!”

Sr. Patty shared these thoughts in a panel at the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University on May 3, 2022. Check out the full video here.

Sr. Sandra Helton, SSND

Black Sisters Testify: Live the Call To Be Authentically You

Black Sisters Testify: Live the Call To Be Authentically You

Nora Bradbury-Haehl
November 23, 2022
Sr. Sandra Helton, SSND

Sr. Sandra Helton, SSND

Sr. Sandra Helton entered her community, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, when she was in her early 30s. She already had two college degrees and had done post-graduate work. The child of a couple of generations of Baptist ministers, she was raised learning the Scriptures.

“From the time I could barely be seen. They’d stand you on the table to recite Bible verses,” she says.

Growing up as a PK (preacher’s kid), she came into religious life with an extremely strong prayer life. “I brought that with me. It’s not something I had to get when I got here,” she says.

She was attracted to life as a sister “because I had this call and I knew the type of service that God was calling me to could not happen in the Baptist Church.” As a convert to Catholicism. some people tell her she came in through the back door.
She says, “No. I came in through the door that God opened.”

As an African-American woman religious, Sr. Sandra’s vocation story, and her experience of life in a predominantly white religious community, is different from that of most sisters in the U.S. Out of 40,000 or so Catholic Sisters in the U.S. only about 400 of them are Black. The National Black Sisters’ Conference has 104 members.

In their September 2020 statement “Hold Up the Light” the NBSC declared, “We must hold up the Light of Christ against the sin of racism. We must speak the truth not only in love but we must speak the truth forthrightly about the complicit, systemic, and structural racism that continues to exist in the American Catholic Church today.”

For Sr. Sandra, living the countercultural witness of a Black Catholic Sister carries both challenges and graces.

“I think for me, being a Black woman in America today means that you basically live in a dual society. I live in a world where I have the norms that are set for the dominant culture. And so I have to follow those norms, even though that may not be the norm that I would typically go to within my own culture,” she says.

“Particularly here in American society, most of the norms are set by the dominant culture without reference to other cultures. … I get up every day and I have to think, ‘What position will I find myself in today?’ I have to always think twice. ‘OK, where am I? And what’s the situation here?’ … It’s a dual setting for me. Most people don’t have to get up and think like that, other than people of color. So it’s not that it’s something that I’m begrudging to do. It’s not something that I dwell on. But it’s an ‘is-ness’ that I have to be conscious of.”

Sr. Sandra gives the example of driving in St. Louis over 20 years ago.

“I was stopped by the police. I was told that the car didn’t belong to me because it belonged to the School Sisters of Notre Dame. I was told I stole the car because there are no Black Sisters. I was made to place my hands on the hood, all of these things that I know that would not have happened had it been someone else, particularly to a woman.”

When she communicates this disparity to white people – that her experience is that of being harassed, rather than protected, by police – she notes, “Some won’t even accept, nor do they understand. Some understand, but there’s always a little caveat, ‘Oh that was happening long ago. That doesn’t happen now.’ That totally is not correct. So there are all of these other things, excuses that come up. Their response is, ‘No, and it’s certainly not talking about me.’”

Conversely, when Sr. Sandra discusses religious life with young people of color, she gets questions that are highly attuned to these realities:

“Are you okay living with whites? That’s one of the questions that comes up a lot. The other one: Can be yourself? And I think the last thing, more importantly, is: Do you feel that what you’re doing is the best thing that you can do in order to help your people?”

“I speak to them of my real experience. I don’t sugarcoat anything,” she says. “I try to answer their questions as honestly as I possibly can.”

Sr. Sandra sees the outreach to young people, especially young people of color, as essential for women religious, that it’s not an attraction to the lifestyle of Sisters that is lacking, but simply the invitations are.

“There are younger people who are very serious about their faith walks and very serious about how they want to spend their lives in terms of their calls as well, and you know it may look different than most people who are in religious communities now,” she says.

While older sisters might question tattoos or other aspects of a young person’s lifestyle, Sr. Sandra counsels, “So what? Let’s go a little bit deeper than that, and it’s not about what you look at and see. It’s when you start getting to the heart, and the gut of who a person is.”

But the vocation to religious life is something Sr. Sandra cherishes and welcomes others to consider.

“It’s a wonderful lifestyle,” she says. “There’s nothing else that I would have done. I know that that’s what God wants me to do, and for whatever reason he’s chosen – and I said yes to it – that I live it out in this particular situation.”

In addition to being lived in the particular, it’s a call that must be lived with authenticity.

“You have to be who you are. No matter what, and even if it’s different,” says Sr. Sandra. “It doesn’t have to be popular. It doesn’t have to be what everybody else is doing. It doesn’t even have to be something your best friend or your family may like. But here’s the thing: It’s going to be where your call is, and that’s where you’re going to live your best life.”

Nora Bradbury-Haehl is the author of “The Twentysomething Handbook” and “The Freshman Survival Guide.”

Sr. LaKesha Church, CPPS

Black Sisters Testify: Example of Love and Healing

Black Sisters Testify: Example of Love and Healing

Briana Jansky
November 20, 2022

Sr. LaKesha Church, CPPS

When LaKesha Church was a young girl, she had a close relationship with God. As a convert to the Catholic faith and temporarily professed with the Sisters of the Precious Blood, her relationship with God is stronger than ever. For Sr. LaKesha, maintaining her close, personal relationship with God and serving others has always been central to discerning God’s will for her life.

Growing up in the Missionary Baptist church, she quickly found that she had a servant’s heart. She was heavily involved in youth ministry. Encouraged by her mother, she became involved in church ministry and worship services regularly and grew in her faith. Later, she volunteered with the Peace Corps, serving in Botswana, Africa.

This knack for service and willingness to follow God led Sr. LaKesha to begin discerning her vocation early on, even before she became Catholic. Now, as a fourth-grade teacher St. Adelaide Academy in Highland, California, she carries her servant’s heart into the classroom daily with her students to show them Christ and to help them become competent citizens.

Like most African American sisters, Sr. LaKesha experienced her fair share of rejection during the discernment process. Historically, Black Sisters have faced difficulty and resistance to professing vows within the church. Many sisters, such as Henriette Delille and Mary Lange, founded their unique religious orders after being rejected by all-white communities, and today, less than 3 percent of Catholic Sisters are African American. Most of them still experience racism, discrimination, and rejection.

Sr. LaKesha had a similar experience that led to a turning point in her discernment process. After one particularly hurtful experience at a “come and see” event, she found herself ready to throw in the towel. Although she felt discouraged, she still felt led to pray to God.

“I think I’m done, Lord. But if you’re not done, then let me know,” she prayed. No sooner than she uttered those words, she received a phone call from the Sisters of the Precious Blood inviting her to come and discern with them.

Sr LaKesha Church, CPPS, stands in front of St. Boniface Church, a place where she finds herself often praying with the saints.

While discerning one’s vocation can often be confusing, Sr. LaKesha has found ways to help with clarity. Along with meeting with a spiritual director and learning the language of discernment, Sr. LaKesha believes in the power of prayer and the intercession of the saints.

“I believe in the power of continual prayer, especially before the Eucharist,” she says. “Through those channels I have been able to hear God’s voice.”

For Black women considering discerning religious life, Sr. LaKesha confidently recommends finding support with the National Black Sisters’ Conference. Founded in 1968 by Sr. Martin de Porres Grey (Patricia Grey Ph.D.), the NBSC has offered education and support to African American religious sisters. The NBSC has extended valuable support to Sr. LaKesha during her discernment.

Sister LaKesha says that living in community “can be a challenge and a struggle, but also a gift.” As she spent time in various congregational houses, she learned more about herself and how to live in community with others. She says, “I’m still learning! Relationship building is a lifelong process.”

In addition to the National Black Sisters’ Conference and the Sisters of the Precious Blood, Sr. LaKesha has also found strength in the saints. She likes to ask for intercession from St. Teresa of Ávila and Mary Undoer of Knots.

As she continues to discern religious life, Sr. Lakesha has a few goals in mind. First, she wants to be herself fully, united through vows. In terms of being herself, she means her authentically Black self and all that her experience as a Black sister has to offer to the life of the church and others. These experiences include her suffering, joy, intelligence, wit, and culture.

Sr. LaKesha Church, CPPS, distributes ashes to her students.

Sr. LaKesha Church, CPPS, distributes ashes to her students.

She also wants to continue teaching her students what it means to be a life-giving, reconciling presence in the church. As the church grapples with issues such as racism and division, she wants to teach them integrity, unity, and what it means to respect the human person. She understands that part of her mission and calling to serve is to help guide her students along the path as they journey their way closer to Christ and with others.

For Sr. LaKesha, a healed church looks like the communion of saints: “Jesus did not judge or cast the first stone. He loved everyone. If we can truly imitate him, we will be healed.”

For her, it’s crucial to be this example of love and healing to her students. In her words, it is essential to be a life-giving example of what it means to imitate Christ. “I have to teach my students about Christ and his love. He encountered people with love, and he dignified them.”

Briana Jansky is a freelance writer and author from Texas.

Black Sisters Testify: Working With and Not Over the People

Black Sisters Testify: Working With and Not Over the People

Q&A with Sr. Patricia Rogers, OP
November 14, 2022
Sr. Patricia Rogers, OP

Sr. Patricia Rogers, OP

Sinsinawa Dominican Sr. Patricia Rogers, a Black Catholic woman religious, retired last year after 10 years leading the Dominican Center, a beacon in the Amani neighborhood in Milwaukee. The center’s work is focused on safety, housing, literacy and economic development.

Speaking with NETWORK’s Just Politics podcast, Sr. Patricia recently reflected on her formation as a Black Sister, her ministry “with and not over” the Amani community, and the persistent, pernicious role of racism, both in the church and in society.

The following is a condensed version of that conversation. Click here to listen to an audio version.

Your mother was an advocate for racial justice in your community, and you personally integrated a high school. How did these early experiences form you?

Sr. Patricia Rogers, OP: The formation came earlier than the integration of Northside High School. My mother enrolled us in CORE, which is the Congress of Racial Equality. This organization was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi with nonviolent and civil disobedience strategies. I think people will remember the famous lunch counter sit-ins—that was done by CORE. I was 12 years old when I joined CORE and my siblings were already members. At 12, I was outside in our neighborhood picketing at the grocery store to protest the corporation’s refusal to hire Black folks, even though most of its stores were located in Black neighborhoods.

The most important thing they said to us on the picket line was that, “Whatever names that you’re being called, that’s not who you are. Never take it to heart, never respond to it.” We knew that we couldn’t get angry—that was the hardest part. I was very grateful for those teachings, and I was very grateful for all of those adults that were out there with children. They were so supportive of us.

The girls in my family were members of the Black women’s federated clubs. There were anywhere from 35 to 50 of these clubs in the United States. They were famous for protesting the lynching of African Americans, and I think in the early 1900s they appealed to President Wilson to stop the race riots in Chicago.  These clubs were where girls learned about important Black women. We also learned about how to be protestors.

These experiences taught me three things: that I had to be brave to face racism head on, that I could not challenge racism with any kind of criminal record… and, the greatest learning for me, that integration did not make me an equal. Growing up, I knew I had to join the anti-racism fight because I really wanted to continue in my mother’s footsteps.

How did you find your way into Catholicism and into religious life?

Sr. Patricia: I was raised Episcopalian, and it didn’t dawn on me to change religions at that point. It was well after I graduated from college. I graduated with an education degree, and after a few years, I applied to an all-girls Catholic high school, Visitation, run by the Sinsinawa Dominicans in Chicago. I was impressed by the sisters’ determination to equip these girls with a great education. And I was very pleased that the principal, a white sister, learned to play gospel music. They had one of the greatest Gospel choirs in the city. The school was predominantly Black; there were a few Latina students.

During this time, I started praying that God would send these sisters a Black sister. I had never seen a Black sister. This was before Whoopi Goldberg. But I hoped that there was one around somewhere. Three years I prayed this prayer.

One day I missed school because I had the flu. After calling in to report my illness, I went back to sleep, and I had a full-blown nightmare. My oven was on fire. I was doing everything possible to put this fire out, but nothing, nothing, nothing was working. As I put some baking soda on—because that’s supposed to put out the fire—a very clear voice said, What about you?

I didn’t question. I went straight to the phone book, found five Patricia Rogers there, smiled and said to God, you have the wrong number! I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I decided I’d make a bargain with God. Because I had not seen a Black nun, I didn’t know if the Church accepted African American women or not. So I said, God, I will apply, I will do whatever is asked of me, but if they do not accept me, just know I did my part. Well, the rest is history. Here I am, as a sister for 40 years.

You led the Dominican Center in the Amani neighborhood in Milwaukee, and you recently retired from there. Can you talk a little bit more about the work that you did there?

Sr. Patricia: I think the big success of being in the Amani neighborhood at the Dominican Center came from knowing that I had to connect with the community that lives there. I knew that they knew more than I did about what was needed. And so it was my practice there to start nothing on our own. We constantly had meetings with the community. Every first Saturday was the community meeting, and that’s where people could come and bring up issues or ask about things that they thought should be happening in the community. Other neighborhood organizations also came to understand that the neighbors had to ask for and be willing to participate in whatever they were doing. That was the real success.

When I first came to the Dominican Center, there was a community garden. I quickly noticed that the community garden really was the Center’s garden. Because we, the workers at the Center, we would go over and plant the seeds and do the weeding, and the neighbors would be sitting on the porch watching us. And so finally, I said to the folks at the Dominican Center, This is not a community garden! We have to ask if people are really interested in this. Well at that point no one was interested in doing a garden. That really helped me learn to say: Before anything starts, we have to ask the residents, what is it that they want? What would they participate in? And we got a lot done because of that attitude. I’m always ready to roll up my sleeves and talk to the people who are most involved in the situation to find out where they want to go and how they want to lead that operation, or how they want to be led.

From your experience, what were some of the major issues affecting Amani residents?

Sr. Patricia: One huge issue in the Amani neighborhood was illegal dumping. People came from all over the city to dump in the alleys of the Amani neighborhood. And if they dumped on your property, the city fined you. It really became a real issue for many of the Amani residents. After bringing this to the Saturday meeting a few times, we got the alderman to come in. We walked the alderman to some dumping sites behind residents’ homes and showed them what was happening. The residents decided that they wanted to start with the Ring doorbells, which were popular at that time. We helped to purchase them and have them installed. After that, dumping stopped happening in the Amani neighborhood. This is just one little example.

Another big problem for the Amani residents was the lack of transportation and the lack of a neighborhood grocery store. We worked on those two things for a long time. While we were not able to get a grocery store in that neighborhood, we were able to clean up three of the corner stores that made it possible for residents to have more fruits and vegetables. So there was some movement there as well.

And one of the big things too was that they formed their own organization, Amani United. The leaders really took the bull by the horns. They know who to go to.  They know to call their alderperson, they know to call their senator. They know who to contact in order to get things done.

We also had the community leaders meet at the table with many of the Dominican Center funders. If the Center ever closed, we wanted our funders to know that there are people in the neighborhood really capable of leading.

Your motto is being “with the people and not over the people”—that it’s not just about a chair at the table, but a voice and a vote. Would you share more about how that approach has guided your ministry?

Sr. Patricia: It seems as if no money comes into Black and Brown communities, but that’s not true. When it does come into those areas, the folks who are responsible, let’s say some of the alderpeople, they make the decisions. So it is very important, before those decisions are made, that the decision makers talk with the people in the community—not just to come and tell them what they are going to do, but to ask what is needed, and then to listen to the response.

There was never a time that I met with the alderman or even funders without resident leaders at the table with me. Because I wanted them to know the conversation, and to speak up if things weren’t going the way that they should. That just became a part of the regular routine, no matter where I went. I didn’t ask for any money without talking to the leaders about how they saw the money would be best used.

Let’s talk about racism and the Catholic Church. In your view, how is what Catholic Social Teaching says about racism different from your experience of racism in the Church?

Sr. Patricia: That’s a good question. The Catholic Church teaches that all human life is sacred, and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of social teachings. You know, there were Black Catholics in the early 1800s. If that’s true that there is dignity in all people, then you have to ask the question, why was it that their dignity was reduced to them sitting in the rafters or the basement of the church during Mass? Why is it that Black Catholic children were denied a Catholic education before the Civil Rights Movement? I never saw a Black nun, and then I learned that the first Black nuns had to establish their own congregations because they were not welcome. And it still makes me wonder, what happened to the dignity of all humans? You just don’t know what to do with that sometimes.

The church has written two pastoral letters on the sin of racism, but we still continue to see racism in the selection of deacons; we see it in the non-recruitment of people of color to religious life; and we see it in the pews. Over the years, the Catholic Church has tried to clean up some of these things. I think the overtness of racism in the Catholic Church no longer exists, but through those three things I just talked about, racism is still there.

You mention looking back in history to find examples of early communities of Black sisters. What is the importance of knowing our history when it comes to understanding and combating racism?

Sr. Patricia: Let’s start with the definition of racism. The definition of racism, for me, is prejudice plus the misuse of power. In these questions, I think about, why was it that people feared African American men? That answer just came to me a couple of years ago—because this was never taught to me—when I found out that during Reconstruction, we had 60+ college-educated African American men in public office, both locally and nationally. What does that equal? That equals a lot of power. And that’s the real fear. That was the real fear in the beginning, that African American men in office could make decisions for more than just African American people.  This still is not taught in schools today.

If we, especially Black children, can’t see ourselves in these positions, then we never will even think about the possibility of them for ourselves. Just in our congregation, some women asked for the habit. The sisters haven’t worn the habit for a number of years. One of these young women who asked for the habit is from Trinidad. I had the pleasure of preaching for her profession, and I let people know what an honor it is for the children in Trinidad to be able to see themselves as a sister.

The fact is that not many women of color are really known or suspected to be a sister, even though we dress simply, we don’t wear makeup, and we have a cross around our necks. People don’t automatically think that we’re a sister. A case in point is an experience I had after being at the Dominican Center for six years, on the annual walk-through of the neighborhood with the alderman. As the alderman and I were talking, a neighbor passed by. She started waving at me and said, “Sister, Sister! You and the other sisters, please pray for my sister, she’s seriously ill.” And so I said, “Yes, I will do that, the sisters and I will definitely pray.” The alderman who was walking with me looked at me and he said, “Is that why they call you Sister? You mean you are a sister?” That was very interesting to me, that all these years he had been talking with me and had been with me at the Center, and he did not realize that I was a nun. So how important it is for that young woman going back to Trinidad to be able to wear the habit and let people in Trinidad and Tobago know that they too can become a sister.

Given this country’s history of Jim Crow and Christian nationalism, where do you see us right now with the threat to democracy and equity in our nation?

Sr. Patricia: I see in the United States today the slogan that we hear so often, “let’s make America great again.” For some reason, a number of people think that the past was a lot greater than today. We know that the past really wasn’t in the favor of people of color. Today we’re seeing that every city that is 39+ percent African American has redrawn their political districts so that African Americans and Latinos have lost one district in those cities. This decreases the political power of the communities of color, in voice and vote. Racism — prejudice plus misuse of power — just continues, in so many different ways.

Sr. Barbara Beasley, RGS

Black Sisters Testify: To Oppressed People, Let Us Bring New Life

Black Sisters Testify: To Oppressed People, Let Us Bring New Life

Sr. Barbara Beasley, RGS
November 1, 2022
Sr. Barbara Beasley, RGS

Sr. Barbara Beasley, RGS

When I think about my own story and the story of every Black woman religious, there is a unifying theme, whatever the congregation we have membership in: We all testify that we have experienced the hand of God laid on us and a strong invitation to follow, to surrender to being loved by God and called to love and serve God’s people and to live together in a way that generates life.

The power of God’s call has been, and continues to be, the “why” and the “how” behind the determination and courage to move into the storm, whatever it feels like, whatever its form.

I often fall back to the beautiful lyrics by Curtis Burrell:

“I don’t feel no ways tired.

Come too far from where I started from.

Nobody told me that the road would be easy.

I don’t believe He brought me this far to leave me.”

In 1968, when the National Black Sisters’ Conference was founded, I was 30 years old and had been perpetually professed for three years. For that first meeting I traveled from Denver to Pittsburgh, to the Mercy Sisters’ campus to meet about 100 of myself! Although I had not seen many other Black Sisters before, I knew immediately the feeling of home.

Sister Martin De Porres Grey, RSM, was the woman of vision who convened us. Together we reclaimed (or reaffirmed) our identity, with the realization that Blackness is Gift to ourselves, our people, our congregations, the church, and beyond. From that first meeting until now, I have seen NBSC as a support and resource for the continuing growth of Black women religious, an advocate for justice for all people and a voice of conscience within the structure of the Catholic Church.

Nearly 40 years after the founding of NBSC, in 2007, Dr. Shannen Dee Williams stumbled upon an old news article, with a photo of four smiling African-American nuns at the first NBSC meeting. Dr. Williams was intrigued to discover that Black Catholic Sisters existed, not to mention that this large group of them had met to strategize on how to strengthen their impact for the sake of the liberation of their people.

As historian and educator, Dr. Williams knew she needed to find out more about these women, but little did she know that her own life would be radically changed by the work she was about to undertake. Her research led her to locate and interview the hidden storytellers who knew the story of the foundation of NBSC and wanted to share it.

Dr. Williams eventually tracked down Dr. Patricia Grey, formerly Sr. Martin De Porres, founder of NBSC. Dr. Grey’s prophetic words to Shannen were: If you can, tell the whole story of Black nuns in the United States. “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Struggle for Freedom” did indeed tell the whole story.

As I read the book, what stirred a strong and painful reaction in me was the narrative of the foundation of the three Black religious Orders: the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the Sisters of the Holy Family, and the Franciscan Handmaids of Mary. No doubt it would be terribly difficult for small bands of Black women doing works of mercy on behalf of oppressed people. To those served by the Sisters, education, health care, social services, and advocacy would serve as lights on the path to a new life.

What was so deeply painful was the description of the outrage and resistance by white nuns to the mere thought of African-American women becoming consecrated religious in the Catholic Church and offering the ministry they were called to give. That the three Black Congregations are alive today gives witness to the mighty power of God’s Spirit ablaze within these faith-filled women.

I am profoundly grateful that this book about Black Sisters has been written. Dr. Williams did more than full justice by chronicling so magnificently what has been achieved, at what cost, and that the struggle goes on.

I venture to think that most/many congregations would welcome the gifts of Black recruits. There is awareness that each congregation has an obligation to support and encourage the culture of the persons who enter, a new level of responsibility on the side of the religious communities these young people come into. Like their predecessors in religious life, I pray that young religious today feel God’s hand firmly upon them and know in their hearts that God is and ever will be a Promise-Keeper.

Sr. Barbara Beasley, RGS, is a Sister of the Good Shepherd and a founding member of the National Black Sisters’ Conference.

This November, NETWORK observes Black Catholic History Month in collaboration with the National Black Sisters Conference, centering the voices of Black Sisters and sharing their testimonies with our spirit-filled network of justice-seekers.