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The Real Sister Act: Shannen Dee Williams Shares History of Black Catholic Sisters

Nicole Patterson

Black Catholic sisters feature

Mount St. Mary's University welcomed distinguished guest speaker Shannen Dee Williams, Ph.D., to present the research on Black Catholic sisters for her forthcoming book titled Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle. Her book is the first historical survey of Black Catholic sisters in the United States—focusing on various freedom struggles within the church and the larger struggle for Black liberation.

shannen-williams.jpgThe Zoom event, titled “Why the Stories of U.S. Black Catholic Sisters Matter,” was sponsored by the Provost’s Office, Office of Student Equity and Success, Center for Campus Ministry and Theology Department in celebration of Black History Month and on the cusp of Women’s History Month.  

Williams is the Albert LePage Assistant Professor of History at Villanova University where she specializes in the study of the African American experience and focuses on women’s issues, religious topics and the Black freedom movement.

“Black sisters understood the subversive power of Black history in the face of rampant discrimination, misrepresentation and erasure,” Williams began. “Many of the women who joined the nation’s historically Black sisterhoods were the descendants of the free and enslaved Black people whose labor, sale, and thankfulness built the early American church. They understood how essential teaching Black and Black Catholic history was in the fight against racism in their church and in the wider American society.”

Her Story

Then Williams shared some of her story.

A self-described cradle Catholic, Williams was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, in a predominately white suburban parish. She grew up in the faith in the Diocese of West Tennessee, where she said she never learned the history of Black Catholics and of Black or African saints. She didn’t know much about Black Catholic history outside of her family’s personal history. Her mother was the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Notre Dame.

“I grew up in a household where everyone told me about that. I understood what I needed to live up to in my life,” she said. Williams admits she considered leaving the church when she entered graduate school. “I didn’t understand my place within the church. I didn’t know my history within the church outside of my mom’s own story; and I just didn’t feel welcome,” she added.

Williams credits God’s providential intervention when, in the early 1990s, the Diocese of West Tennessee received its first African American bishop. She knew there were Black priests but it had never occurred to her there were Black nuns. The only Black sister she ever saw was Whoopi Goldberg’s character, Sister Mary Clarence, in the Sister Act franchise.

“So imagine my surprise when I go off to graduate school with an interest in studying women’s activism and leadership and the Black freedom struggle and especially the Black power movement and I stumble upon a newspaper article from 1968 announcing the formation of a Black power federation of Catholic nuns called the National Black Sisters Conference,” Williams shared.

God’s grace led her to a purpose-filled project. “I found a copy of Cyprian Davis’s landmark study of the Black Catholic community that was published in 1990. He included a chapter on the history of Black sisters in the U.S. and I learned there had been two black orders of nuns founded in Savannah, Georgia,” she explained. Speaking with conviction, she added “My mother’s journey into the church was made possible by Black nuns and yet the white nuns who taught my mother never told her about that history, and according to my mother, never taught her Black history either.” Williams said the article and a photo of four beautiful, smiling Black nuns stayed with her. 

She soon found an article published in 1975 edition of The National Catholic Reporter written by Sister Mary Shawn Copeland, who was the first African American woman admitted into the Felician Sisters in Detroit, Michigan. The title was “Black Nuns: An Uneasy Story,” and the article was the first attempt of a record to write a comprehensive history of Black sisters in the U.S.

The article read: “The saga of America’s Black women who dared to be poor, chaste, obedient is largely untold. It is an uneasy story, not only because it is rooted in the American dilemma, racism, but also because the position of woman in an oppressed group is traditionally delicate and strategic.”

By the time Williams tracked down Copeland, she’d left religious life and was a distinguished theologian at Boston College. Williams continued to gather names and stories of the founding members of the National Black Sisters Conference “who would come together in 1968 in the wake of the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to declare war on white supremacy and racism in their church and wider society,” Williams said.

Retired Sister Copeland told her she was grateful someone was interested in her story. “She said something very profound to me that stays with me to this day,” Williams said. “She said ‘We the members of the National Black Sisters Conference were not the first Black sisters to revolt against racism in the church. If you can, try to tell all of our stories.’ One of her greatest regrets is that the Conference had not been able to publish a comprehensive history.”

Williams had finally realized her place in the church. She was motivated to share the real history of the Black Catholic sisters—their foundational role, their challenges and their victories.

America’s Real Sister Act

Zoom attendees were given a crash course on this history, or as Williams calls it: “America’s Real Sister Act.” This story, she says, is the story of how generations of African American girls and women called into religious life fought racism, segregation, exclusion and erasure in order to answer God’s call on their life.

“The Catholic church was the first and largest corporate slave holders in the Americas, including the land area that became the United States. It was also the largest Christian practitioner of racial segregation through America’s civil rights years and it’s impossible to tell the stories of Black sisters honestly and accurately without grappling with that history.”

As a historian, Williams says she’s come to understand “the greatest weapon of white supremacy has never been simply the violence, but rather the ability to erase the history of its violence and its victim. If we’re talking about the Catholic church, if we want to understand the invisibility of Black sisters than we have to recon with this history of violence and the ways in which it sort of manifested itself in slavery, in segregation, but also in exclusionary policies and the mistreatment of Black people in Catholic spaces including religious life.”

Historically Black Sisterhoods

Williams discussed the formation of historically Black sisterhoods, of which there have been at least eight and they were all in the south. In her book she says she discusses a possible ninth. The three she discussed in the lecture included the Oblate Sisters of Providence, founded in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1828, the Sisters of the Holy Family, founded in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1842, and the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary founded in Savannah, Georgia, in 1916.

Through oral history interviews and research, Williams tells the stories of Black Catholic women like Anne Marie Becraft, who founded the nation’s first Catholic school open to Black children in 1820. In 1831, she moved to Baltimore to join the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first African American female religious order, and became known as Sister Mary Aloysius.

“What’s significant about Anne Marie Becraft is she’s the only Catholic sister, of any color, known to have a birthright to the early nation through Charles Carroll, because he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, but also to the early church through Bishop John Carroll.”

The Oblate Sisters of Providence were a non-slave holding community founded by Mother Mary Lange. “So often, apologists for Catholic slave reconciliation try to say the church engaged in slavery because that’s what everyone was doing at the time. It’s important to understand they could have owned slaves, but they chose not to. While we attempt to make excuses for some of those who were slave holders, it’s important to understand there were people who said no from the very beginning.”

Their Names & Their Stories

Williams highlighted a few stunning women whose stories have largely been hidden, unknown and ignored—women whose stories matter. “What would happen if we narrate the story of the U.S. Catholic church from the experience of the Black women and girls who are foundational to the church?” she asked.

Joyce Williams of Chicago was denied admission to the Order of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota from 1944-48. In 1845, Mother Theresa Maxis Duchemin, who was the former superior general of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, traveled to Monroe, Michigan, to found the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Venerable Henriette DeLille was born in 1812 a free woman of color. In 1836 she founded what would become the Society of the Holy Family, designed to serve the sick, poor and uneducated. She is under consideration for canonization.

Through each story, Williams shows the racist, sexually exploitive and hateful treatment these Black Catholic sisters faced. Some were not allowed to wear veils. Others were taken as concubines and sexually abused. Some sisters were forced to eat with separate utensils. One sister mentioned had her bedsheets burned. “Some of the stories I’ve heard is the stuff of nightmares,” Williams said. “It was unreal to me what was happening in convents. These were fierce strongholds of white supremacy. Some women internalized this racism. One woman admitted she prayed to be white, to have them at least be kind to her.” Many Black girls and women still faced heart-wrenching challenges if they couldn’t pass for white or refused to disown their families and racial heritage.

“While they’re willing to teach black girls, they’re not willing to let them into religious life,” Williams said of white counterparts. “Racism was not a disqualifier for white women in religious life. They could be racist but be in religious life. Race would come before religion. It’s documented in so many ways.”

Black History Is Catholic History

Williams says the stories of these Black Catholic sisters is the story of the U.S. Catholic church. Their stories are what it means to be Black and Catholic in this country. “When I think about the legacy of the nation’s Black Catholic sisters in the U.S., I often return to a quote that was given to me, and an answer that was given to me by Sister Loretta Theresa Richards, a longtime superior of the Franciscan Handmaids of Mary. I asked her what she thought about the legacy of Black sisters. She didn’t hesitate to answer: ‘They are the ones who are going to stay. They are the ones who have made it Catholic time and time again.’ For me, that’s the story of America’s Real Sister Act.”

Thinking about the time spent considering leaving the church, she now reflects: “Whatever I’m upset about, it doesn’t even compare to what my foremothers in the church went through. I don’t know that experience of having to go to the back of a communion line to have priests put on gloves before serving me. I don’t know that experience. But what I do know is that if those individuals, these Black Catholics, in the face of unholy discrimination, in the face of slavery, in the face of segregation, in the face of a discourse and doctrine that said Black lives didn’t matter, if they could fight the church in the midst of slavery and segregation, I certainly have a responsibility to these people to stay and fight it as well.”

She ended her presentation with this thought. 

“The most important thing I learned, is that Black history is and always has been Catholic history. Catholicism is the first Black articulation of Christianity in what becomes the United States, and that’s important for me,” she said.

Reviews & Reactions

“I was drawn to the seminar because, despite being a lifelong Catholic, I knew nothing about the orders of Black sisters in the United States. I’m grateful to Dr. Shannen Dee Williams for sharing the history of the orders of Black sisters and all that they have overcome in their desire to serve God and live their Catholic faith.” – Patrick Lombardi, Ph.D., assistant professor of Chemistry

“I was intrigued to learn about the history of Black Catholics and the challenges, struggles and hardships they endured.” – Precious Agyekum, C’24

“She told powerful stories of women of faith who endured a great deal in service to God and to the church.” – David McCarthy, Ph.D., associate provost 

 “I was excited to hear more about the context of Black ministry and very much enjoyed this talk. Dr. Williams masterfully presented a story of Black nuns of which far too many of us are unaware. A history that is both painful and encouraging, the challenges faced and surmounted by Black women in ministry is a testament to these women’s determination to serve. The Black experience in the Catholic Church in the United States in as deep as its very origins, and there is still much to be reckoned with as more scholars like Dr. Williams push for answers and share this vital experience.” –Tim Fritz, Ph.D., assistant professor of history

“Something that resonated with me about Dr. Williams’s message was her point that without the presence and the efforts of these Black sisters, the church would not truly be Catholic, and that was why they kept fighting against enormous odds. I found that to be moving and inspiring.” –Eleanor Fisher, C’23 

 “No matter how things were in the past, we have the power to change them and make sure people aren’t unwelcome in the church again.” – Amara Jerome, C’21

Nicole Patterson