New book points to the need for a racial reckoning in women’s religious orders

know about New book points to the need for a racial reckoning in women’s religious orders

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Shannen Dee Williams describes her upcoming book on black Catholic sisters as a “labor of love.”

Her book, “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long Fight for African American Freedom,” to be published in May, is the result of more than a dozen years of oral history research and interviews.

It tells not only how the black sisters pioneered the push for desegregation in society at large, but also how they had to do so on a very personal level as they tried to gain acceptance into predominantly white religious orders and persevere in their vocation when some of them they endured not only prejudice but also outright intimidation in these orders.

Williams, an associate professor of history at the Marianist-run University of Dayton in Ohio and a columnist for Catholic News Service, interviewed women religious and pored over the archives of many congregations to learn about their work.

Putting it all together leads to some “true truths,” she said, using one of Sister Thea Bowman’s expressions. The Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration pioneered the rights of black Catholics and the Vatican is considering her cause for sainthood.

In an interview in February, Williams said the idea for the book grew out of her own lack of knowledge of black sisters and once she began researching them, she discovered stories that had long been kept quiet and women who were eager to share them. .

These are stories we must champion, the author said, “not just within the church but also within our society,” noting that these religious women are the “forgotten prophets of American Catholicism and democracy.”

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Williams said the stories are painful in many ways because they seem to go against what Catholic sisters are about, but she says telling them is part of a first step toward healing. She said many of the sisters she spoke with told her they were glad someone was interested and had been waiting for someone to approach them.

She presented some of her initial findings at a 2016 assembly in Atlanta for the Women of Religious Leadership Conference and said she needed help with this project. Several communities stepped forward and one gave him a grant.

In recent years, she has been invited to speak to congregations across the country about researching and addressing her own links to racism. Some have begun this examination by scouring their archives for details on how to exclude or mistreat women of color or trust the labor of enslaved people.

Williams has urged congregations to recognize that “every community story is different” and that they need to know exactly what they did. “You have to collect your own stories,” she told them.

“Just because a white community is willing to educate black children doesn’t mean they’re automatically committed to racial justice,” Williams said, noting that some religious communities had “anti-black admission policies” before the laws. desegregation.

The untold number of black women who were rejected from religious orders are lost vocations that the church should take into account, Williams said.

But also, if a congregation accepted a black woman, it didn’t mean they were “being racially progressive,” she added.

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Part of what pioneering black sisters, including Sister Bowman, went through was abuse “designed to drive them out of religious life,” Williams said, stressing that these stories are painful but imperative to hear.

“It’s heartbreaking. It’s hard,” she said.

For example, he said some orders that allowed black sisters not to touch their utensils or use the same cups. They also required black sisters to profess their vows separately in segregated ceremonies.

She said that was the experience of Sister Antona Ebo, a Franciscan Sister of Mary, known for marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in his 1965 march in Selma, Alabama. The sister, who died in 2017, also spoke out in 2014 at protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of a black man by a white police officer.

Sister Antona’s formation and profession of vows took place separately from the white women who entered the order at the time.

The stories Williams heard from black sisters who experienced prejudice and white sisters who witnessed it show “heartbreak, built on heartbreak upon heartbreak.” Acknowledgment of what happened is a first step, he noted, followed by a deep look at what it means to make amends for how this has damaged the church.

Williams acknowledges that repair is a big undertaking without clear direction on how to do it. On his part, as an educator, the “historical truth” is a beginning, and only that. She doesn’t give congregations a pass to admit something bad happened and move on.

She said several congregations have begun the work of telling their own stories and also joining groups fighting for racial equality, but there is still a long way to go.

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As she sees it, religious women can ultimately support the “freedom campaigns of the contemporary period” and all Catholics who want to take church history into account can too.

She said the models for the church now come primarily from black congregations, such as the Oblate Sisters of Providence, who have been working for racial equality for nearly 200 years and provide “the model of who we want to be.” Williams noted that they have essentially always been living the slogan “Black Lives Matter” in her work.

The determination and persistence of the black orders and sisters, long ago and still today, is something that Williams has faced head-on.

“It has been with me for a long time. So it’s great to finally share it,” she said.

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim