When it comes to the history of women’s religious orders in the United States, Shannen Dee Williams believes there is a crucial story that is often overlooked. Williams, who is an assistant professor of history at Villanova University, has spent much of her career researching the generations of Black Catholic women who had to fight to live out their vocations. She presented her research to members of the Catholic University community Feb. 10 during a lecture entitled, “The Real Sister Act: Why the Stories of Black Catholic Sisters Matter.”
The talk, which was held virtually, was co-sponsored by the Department of History, the School of Theology and Religious Studies, the University Libraries Special Collections, the Office of Campus Ministry, the Black Student Alliance, and the Center for Cultural Engagement.
The conversation began with an introduction from University President John Garvey, who spoke of Catholic University’s checkered history of segregation. Though the University admitted African American students when it was first founded, the school closed its doors to Black students during World War I and remained segregated for several years afterward.
Junior Kelly Woodson, vice president of the Black Student Alliance, introduced Williams and spoke about the need to learn about Black history to better understand our current world.
Throughout her lecture, Williams explained the many challenges faced by Black Catholic women pursuing the religious life throughout American history. For many years, she said, no religious orders in the U.S. would accept Black women. If Black women were accepted, it was often only because they could pass as white. Those women would have to relinquish all ties to their family in order to keep their race hidden.
Eventually, there were religious orders established exclusively for Black Catholic women — the first of which being the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, Md., which was founded in 1828 by Mother Mary Lange. That order created the first Catholic school open to Black girls. They were also the first women’s religious order to stand against slavery, even accepting formerly enslaved women to become sisters.
Though these orders provided women with a safe place to live out their faith, they faced great resistance inside and outside of the Church. Louisiana’s Sisters of the Holy Family were the second religious order founded for Black women. Due to the local Church regulations, they were forbidden to wear veils in public for several decades. Black sisters also faced difficulties in education, since few Catholic institutions would allow them to attend.
Desegregation efforts did not begin for many Catholic religious orders until World War II, Williams said. When religious orders were slowly opened to Black women, sisters still faced a lonely road of discrimination from their own community. In some orders, this meant Black sisters could not eat in the same room as their white counterparts or set foot in the mother house. Some orders required separate vow ceremonies for Black sisters.
Williams believes the struggles and sacrifices of these Black religious sisters served as a precursor to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“What’s always important to remember is that beginning in 1945, many of these women who desegregated so many of these white orders had already desegregated their Catholic high schools, they’re already seasoned veterans in the Black freedom struggle by the time the Church gets involved in the Civil Rights movement,” she said.
Williams said she was unfamiliar with the lives of Black women religious until she was in graduate school studying Black women’s history. While going through old microfilm collections, she found a newspaper announcing the formation of the National Black Sisters Conference.
“I thought, ‘How is it that I am a Black Catholic woman practicing the faith in my church and I didn’t know about this?’” she said. After googling the conference, she was able to meet and interview some of the remaining members. The more she listened to their stories, the more she became determined to share their experiences and honor their sacrifices.
“My research for my forthcoming book is really my attempt to honor this movement started by a group of young women,” Williams said. “When I ask Black Catholic sisters about their greatest legacy, they say very quickly that, ‘We made the Church Catholic. If we had not fought to answer God’s call in our lives and serve our communities, the Church would not be where it is today.’”
Williams also spoke about the legacy of Sister Thea Bowman, a Catholic University graduate who was the first Black sister in her congregation, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Sister Bowman was named a Servant of God in 2018.
“Hers is a story of a woman who endured racism and died young due to the stress-related diseases and the health consequences of that,” Williams said. “I embrace her and accept her, but it’s important we do what she said, which is to tell the ‘truth-truth’: she suffered and that’s a story every American should know.”