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Black Catholic nuns: A compelling, long-overlooked history

Sister Anthonia Ugwu, left, and Sister Mary Ngina, both nuns with the Oblate Sisters of Providence, joke with each other as they pose for a portrait in the chapel at Saint Frances Academy, in Baltimore, Md., on April 27, 2022. The academy, which today educates high school students, was founded in 1828 by Mother Mary Lange, who a year later founded the OSP. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

Even as a young adult, Shannen Dee Williams – who grew up Black and Catholic in Memphis, Tennessee – knew of only one Black nun, and a fake one at that: Sister Mary Clarence, as played by Whoopi Goldberg in the comic film “Sister Act.”

After 14 years of research, Williams – a history professor at the University of Dayton – arguably now knows more about America’s Black nuns than anyone in the world. Her comprehensive and compelling history of them, “Subversive Habits,” will be published May 17.

Williams found that many Black nuns were modest about their achievements and reticent about sharing details of bad experiences, such as encountering racism and discrimination. Some acknowledged wrenching events only after Williams confronted them with details gleaned from other sources.

“For me, it was about recognizing the ways in which trauma silences people in ways they may not even be aware of,” she said.

The story is told chronologically, yet always in the context of a theme Williams outlines in her preface: that the nearly 200-year history of these nuns in the U.S. has been overlooked or willfully suppressed by those who resented or disrespected them.

This circa 1966 photo shows Patricia Grey, who was a nun in the Sisters of Mercy and a founder of the National Black Sisters’ Conference before leaving religious life in 1974. (Courtesy Patricia Grey via Associated Press)

“For far too long, scholars of the American, Catholic and Black pasts have unconsciously or consciously declared – by virtue of misrepresentation, marginalization and outright erasure – that the history of Black Catholic nuns does not matter,” she writes, depicting her book as proof that their history “has always mattered.”

Williams begins her narrative in the pre-Civil War era when some Black women, even in slaveholding states, found their way into Catholic sisterhood. Some entered previously whites-only orders, often in subservient roles, while a few trailblazing women formed orders for Black nuns in Baltimore and New Orleans.

Even as the number of American nuns – of all races – shrinks relentlessly, that Baltimore order founded in 1829 remains intact, continuing its mission to educate Black youths. Some current members of the Oblate Sisters of Providence help run Saint Frances Academy, a high school serving low-income Black neighborhoods.

Some of the most detailed passages in “Subversive Habits” recount the Jim Crow era, extending from the 1870s through the 1950s, when Black nuns were not spared from the segregation and discrimination endured by many other African Americans.

Shannen Dee Williams, associate professor of history at the University of Dayton, speaks to her students during a class April 21 in Dayton, Ohio. Williams spent 14 years researching America’s Black nuns, and her history of them, “Subversive Habits,” will be published May 17. Williams found that many Black nuns were modest about their achievements and reticent about sharing details of bad experiences, such as encountering racism and discrimination. (Aaron Doster/Associated Press)

In the 1960s, Williams writes, Black nuns were often discouraged or blocked by their white superiors from engaging in the civil rights struggle.

Yet one of them, Sister Mary Antona Ebo, was on the front lines of marchers who gathered in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 in support of Black voting rights and in protest of the violence of Bloody Sunday when white state troopers brutally dispersed peaceful Black demonstrators. An Associated Press photo of Ebo and other nuns in the march on March 10 – three days after Bloody Sunday – ran on the front pages of many newspapers.

Over two decades before Selma, Ebo faced repeated struggles to surmount racial barriers. She was denied admittance to Catholic nursing schools because of her race, and later endured segregation policies at the white-led order she joined in St. Louis in 1946, Williams said.

Six Catholic nuns, including Sister Mary Antona Ebo, front row fourth from left, lead a march in Selma, Ala., on March 10, 1965, in support of Black voting rights and in protest of the violence of Bloody Sunday when white state troopers brutally dispersed peaceful Black demonstrators. The group was within a hundred feet of a Black church when the police blocked their way. (Associated Press file)

The idea for “Subversive Habits” took shape in 2007, when Williams – then a graduate student at Rutgers University – was seeking a compelling topic for a paper due in a seminar about African American history.

At the library, she searched through microfilm editions of Black-owned newspapers and came across a 1968 article in the Pittsburgh Courier about a group of Catholic nuns forming the National Black Sisters’ Conference.

The accompanying photo, of four smiling Black nuns, “literally stopped me in my tracks,” she said. “I was raised Catholic … How did I not know that Black nuns existed?”

Mesmerized by her discovery, she began devouring “everything I could that had been published about Black Catholic history,” while setting out to interview founding members of the National Black Sisters’ Conference. As her research broadened, she scoured overlooked archives, previously sealed church records and out-of-print books, while conducting more than 100 interviews.

“I bore witness to a profoundly unfamiliar history that disrupts and revises much of what has been said and written about the U.S. Catholic Church and the place of Black people within it,” Williams writes. “Because it is impossible to narrate Black sisters’ journey in the United States – accurately and honestly – without confronting the Church’s largely unacknowledged and unreconciled histories of colonialism, slavery and segregation.”

Historians have been unable to identify the nation’s first Black Catholic nun, but Williams recounts some of the earliest moves to bring Black women into Catholic religious orders.

One of the oldest Black sisterhoods, the Sisters of the Holy Family, formed in New Orleans in 1842 because white sisterhoods in Louisiana, including the slaveholding Ursuline order, refused to accept African Americans.

The principal founder of that New Orleans order – Henriette Delille – and Oblate Sisters of Providence founder Mary Lange are among three Black nuns from the U.S. designated by Catholic officials as worthy of consideration for sainthood. The other is Sister Thea Bowman, a beloved educator, evangelist and singer who died in Mississippi in 1990 and is buried in Williams’ hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, there are about 400 African American religious sisters, out of a total of about 40,000 nuns.

That overall figure is only one-fourth of the 160,000 nuns in 1970, according to Catholic researchers at Georgetown University. Whatever their races, many of the remaining nuns are elderly, and the influx of youthful novices is sparse.

Williams told the AP she was considering leaving the Catholic church – partly because of its handling of racial issues – as she started researching Black nuns. Hearing their histories revitalized her faith.

“As these women were telling me their stories, they were also preaching to me in a such a beautiful way,” she said. “It wasn’t done in a way that reflected any anger – they had already made their peace with it, despite the unholy discrimination they had faced.”

What keeps her in the church now, Williams said, is a commitment to these women who chose to share their stories.

“It took a lot for them to get it out,” she said. “I remain in awe of these women, of their faithfulness.”

AP video journalist Jessie Wardarski contributed to this report.

Patricia Grey, center, a former nun with the Sisters of Mercy, talks with members of the Divine Redeemer Catholic Parish pastoral council on Monday, April 18, 2022, in Sewickley, Pa. Before leaving religious life in 1974, Grey founded the National Black Sisters’ Conference with the support of Rev. John J. Wright in 1968. (Jessie Wardarski/Associated Press)
Shannen Dee Williams, associate professor of history at the University of Dayton, poses for a portrait April 21 in Dayton, Ohio. Williams spent 14 years researching America’s Black nuns, and her history of them, “Subversive Habits,” will be published May 17. (Aaron Doster/Associated Press)
Sister Delphine Okoro, a nun with the Oblate Sisters of Providence, reacts to an answer from her fifth grade students at Mother Mary Lange Catholic School in Baltimore, Md., Wednesday, April 27, 2022. The school is named for Mother Mary Lange, who was the foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)
This 1968 photo provided by the National Black Sisters' Conference shows foundresses of the NBSC at Mercy College, which was later renamed Carlow University, in Pittsburgh. (NBSC via AP)
Sister Anthonia Ugwu, a nun with the Oblate Sisters of Providence, works in the chapel at Saint Frances Academy, in Baltimore, Md., Wednesday, April 27, 2022. The Academy, which today educates high school students, was founded in 1828 by Mother Mary Lange, who a year later founded the OSP. The school still educates high schoolers in Baltimore today. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)
This 1898 photo provided by the Sisters of the Holy Family shows members of the religious order of African-American nuns in New Orleans. One of the oldest Black sisterhoods, the SSF, formed in New Orleans in 1842 because white sisterhoods in Louisiana, including the slaveholding Ursuline order, refused to accept African Americans. (SSF via AP)
This 1965 photo provided by the Pittsburgh Catholic shows Patricia Grey, center, a nun in the Sisters of Mercy and a founder of the National Black Sisters' Conference, at a sympathy march for Selma, Ala., held in Pittsburgh. (Pittsburgh Catholic via AP)
This undated photo provided by the Oblate Sisters of Providence in 2022 shows founder Mary Lange. The order was founded in 1829, in Baltimore. Lange is one of three Black nuns from the U.S. designated by Catholic officials as worthy of consideration for sainthood. (OSP via AP)
This 1956 photo provided by Shannen Dee Williams shows Sister Cora Marie Billings, center, who as a 17-year-old in 1956 became the first Black person admitted into the Sisters of Mercy in Philadelphia. Later, she was the first Black nun to teach in a Catholic high school in Philadelphia and was a co-founder of the National Black Sisters' Conference. (Courtesy of Sister Cora Marie Billings/Shannen Dee Williams via AP)
Students at Mother Mary Lange Catholic School walk past the chapel, which is decorated with a portrait of Mother Mary Lange, the foundress of the order of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, in Baltimore, Md., Wednesday, April 27, 2022. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)
Sister Mary Ngina, a nun with the Oblate Sisters of Providence (OSP), poses for a portrait in the room that Oblate Sisters of Providence Foundress Mother Mary Lange lived and died in at Saint Frances Academy, in Baltimore, Md., Wednesday, April 27, 2022. The Academy, which today educates high school students, was founded in 1828 by Mother Mary Lange, who a year later founded the OSP. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)
A picture of Mother Mary Lange, the founder of the order of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, is seen next to a card of Sister Delphine Okoro, a nun with the Oblate Sisters of Providence, in a fifth grade classroom at Mother Mary Lange Catholic School in Baltimore, Wednesday, April 27, 2022. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)
Patricia Grey, a former nun with the Sisters of Mercy, poses for a portrait at the Sewickley Public Library on Monday, April 18, 2022, in Sewickley, Pa. Grey founded the National Black Sisters' Conference in 1968 with the support of Rev. John J. Wright, before leaving religious life in 1974. (Jessie Wardarski/Associated Press)
This 1964 photo shows Patricia Grey, who was a nun in the Sisters of Mercy and a founder of the National Black Sisters' Conference before leaving religious life in 1974. (Courtesy of Patricia Grey via AP)
This circa 1971 photo shows Patricia Grey, who was a nun in the Sisters of Mercy and a founder of the National Black Sisters' Conference before leaving religious life in 1974. (Courtesy Patricia Grey via AP)
Sister Mary Ngina, a nun with the Oblate Sisters of Providence, has her habit blown in the wind in front of Saint Frances Academy, in Baltimore, Md., Wednesday, April 27, 2022. The Academy, which today educates high school students, was founded in 1828 by Mother Mary Lange, who a year later founded the OSP. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)
This undated photo provided by the Sisters of the Holy Family in 2022 shows Henriette Delille, a principal founder of the religious order of African-American nuns which was established in 1842, in New Orleans. (SSF via Associated Press)