Black Sisters Testify: Working With and Not Over the People
Q&A with Sr. Patricia Rogers, OP
November 14, 2022
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.