Change of habit: The struggle of African American sisters in the U.S.
R.W. Dellinger March 10, 2016
Sister Desiré Findlay teaches dance, religion and Spanish at all-girls’ Pomona Catholic High School here in the archdiocese. Six months ago, she was interviewed for a book on the history of racial discrimination within U.S. women religious congregations.
The 29-year-old Felician Franciscan told me she was dumbfounded to learn about the bedrock discrimination and outright racial loathing against African American women by white religious communities in her talk with Shannen Dee Williams, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
“Wow!” Sister Desiré said. “I didn’t have any experience of prejudice within the Church — but I’m very oblivious.” And she laughed softly.
“I don’t think that I really pay attention to prejudice. And I’m sure that I’ve experienced it even as a kid or young adult, and I just didn’t notice. I think that’s the case now. Although I’ve been welcomed with open arms everywhere I’ve gone in the community. Because we have sisters all over the United States. They’ve all been loving and kind.”
The Albuquerque, New Mexico, native says she had none of that entering the Sisters of St. Feliz of Cantalice herself in 2010. But not every woman has found such a welcoming religious community.
Nine years ago, grad student Williams was searching for some arcane academic paper in American history at Rutgers University in New Jersey. By chance, she stumbled on a newspaper story about the formation of the National Black Sisters’ Conference in 1968.
“I experienced what I can only call a ‘metanoia,’” Williams told an African American ministry forum at Loyola Marymount University last month. “For the first time in my life, I could name several black women who had dared to embrace the religious state in the U.S. Church and say among many things that they were black and Catholic and undeniably proud.”
She confessed she didn’t know anything about the history of African-American women religious in the 2,000-plus-year history of Christianity. Had never seen a black sister outside of Whoopi Goldberg in “Sister Act.” At no point in her Catholic or public school education was she ever taught about black nuns or even the long history of Catholicism among blacks around the world.
“And I’m a cradle Catholic,” she said, drawing laughs from 70-plus folks packed into classroom 1866 in University Hall. “Also, my mother was the first black woman to graduate from the University of Notre Dame. And my mother didn’t know this history.”
Williams began scouring research databases on the Internet for any mention of the National Black Sisters’ Conference. She collected the names of pioneer African-American women who entered — or tried to enter — white congregations.
“I also read in horror as many recounted their years of discrimination, abuse and neglect in their orders in the predominately white communities in which they labored,” she said.
The oral histories she started putting together just reinforced her determination, which was now well beyond any academic pursuit.
“Thoroughly unsettled by how invisible and inaccessible black sisters and histories had been to me, a cradle black Catholic and a budding historian of black women, I committed myself to learning as much about black sisters throughout the world as possible,” she said. “And I also decided to join a small community of scholars working to document their human history.”
The end result? More than 25 archives searched, 85 former or current black women religious interviewed. One of them was Sherrill Adams, who left her congregation.
It became a quest that would make any New York Times investigative reporter proud, taking Williams seven years to track down Adams, the first African American accepted into the Baltimore province of the community in 1963. Five years later Adams joined with other black women religious, including Mercy Sister Martin de Porres Gray, to found the National Black Sisters Conference.
Many paid a heavy price indeed for the activism, coming of age during the heady civil rights and Black Power movements. And like many, Adams put up a valiant struggle, but eventually left her community.
‘Why now? Why now?’
The academic knew all this when she finally got Adams on the phone in the summer of 2014. And like a seasoned journalist, she also knew she had maybe 30 seconds to make her case for an oral history interview. Hoping for the best, she dropped every nun’s name she’d come across.
The former sister and retired principal listened and took a moment before asking, “Why now? Why now?” She said she hadn’t been able to speak about her past religious life for decades, and then confessed it was probably time to share her story. A few days later, Williams was recording a familiar account.
“When asked in 2014 what she thought was the greatest accomplishment of her 13-year tenure as a Catholic sister, 68-year-old Sherill Adams didn’t hesitate. ‘Survival,’ she proclaimed. ‘I lived through it. I survived it,’” the researcher read from her forthcoming book “Subversive Habits: Black Nuns and the Long Struggle to Desegregate Catholic America.”
Adams told Williams how entering religious life during the classical phase of the Civil Rights Movement, she really believed things would be different. With integration becoming the law of the land, the rampant anti-black prejudice would surely lessen in the Church, too.
“Unfortunately, Adams’ hope for acceptance and equal treatment in her congregation were quickly dashed,” Williams continued reading. “The moment she entered the convent, Adams endured racial harassment, which often times took the form of verbal abuse and emotional isolation on a daily basis.”
The self-described constant “macro and micro-aggressions” by her fellow women religious, in fact, knew no bounds.
Later, out of the novitiate, humiliation continued to rain down on the young black woman. Assignments to teach were delayed or canceled outright. Sisters actually took votes about accepting her into new convents or to work with her at a parochial school. Some objected to eating at the same table or sharing a bathroom.
Adams was resolved to stay with her congregation and fight the embedded racism she felt firsthand in the Church. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and riots sprang up in U.S. cities, she became active in the National Black Sisters’ Conference and National Office for Black Catholics. And she supported the Black Power Movement. This brought even more racial flak from members of her community. But, like a good nun, she soldiered on.
But then in 1976 came the last straw, she told Williams. Just 30, she had a heart attack and for two weeks was in intensive care at a local hospital. Not one sister came to visit. When the researcher read: “Adams finally conceded that it was time to depart religious life and end her community’s reluctant experiment in racial integration,” ‘hums’ went around the classroom. Heads shook.
Williams read one last quote from Adams: “‘It broke my heart. Then shredded my heart.’”
Mother Mary Lange
Using lots of slides during her two-hour presentation at LMU, Williams gave example after example from her oral histories and archival research of African American women religious who faced racial hatred in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Women like Sister Daniel Marie Myles, who entered the Milwaukee Province of the School Sisters of St. Francis in 1949.
“I tried to act and talk and live white, because it was the only way I’d be accepted at all in the convent,” she testified. “And I forgot my own culture, my own black parents down South, and tried my best to be what the white nuns wanted me to be. The other sisters always laughed at me for the way I talked and walked. And I tried not to resent their laughter. In fact, I tried to laugh right along with them.”
Many light-skinned women were able to “pass” as white so they could join Catholic communities, Williams pointed out. And early on, a few others founded their own.
Elizabeth Lange, a Cuban-born daughter of Haitian refugees, formed the first black Catholic sisterhood in the United States, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, in 1829. And today Mother Mary Lange is on the road to sainthood.
Also on her way to being a saint, Venerable Henriette Delille started the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans, made up of free women of color in 1842. And the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, founded in Savannah, Georgia, by Father Ignatius Lissner and Barbara Williams (who would become Mother Mary Theodore Williams), are celebrating their centennial this year, serving now in New York City’s Harlem.
Like white sisters, many black women religious left their communities after the changes initiated by the Second Vatican Council, held from 1962 to 1965. One who stayed was Sister Thea Bowman.
The Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration at La Crosse, Wisconsin, was an evangelist, popular speaker and leader of the National Black Sisters’ Conference. And when Mike Wallace interviewed her on “60 Minutes,” she became a nationally-known Catholic figure, right up there with Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. The “Sister Act” films starring Whoopi Goldberg were based on the woman religious, who died of cancer in 1990. Williams called the movies a “terrible” portrayal.
The historian took questions after her presentation and admitted she was on her way out of the Church herself before learning about women religious like Sister Thea Bowman. “You can’t forgive what you don’t know,” she said. “Now I know I have a place in the Church. And I know if these women were courageous enough to live their faith, we have a duty to listen to them.”
‘Open arms everywhere’
While she’s enjoyed religious life, Sister Desiré did admit she’d encountered some “grumpy” sisters in her community. And one stood out when she was a novice. When she would say “Good morning” to her, she often got a curt, “Oh, just keep going.” So it did make her wonder, since she was the only woman of color in that convent.
Later when this elderly nun was in the hospital and novices came to visit, she said to her out of the blue, “You know, I haven’t always been the nicest to you. And I just wanted to apologize for that.”
“And I was like, ‘Wow! Maybe she had a race issue,’” she recalled. “I don’t know.”
The young nun points out how she has light skin. While her black dad was born in Trinidad, the family had more of her mom’s Hispanic southwest culture. Going to public school, in fact, there was some negative feedback from black students that she wasn’t black enough.
“There’s this stereotype of African American people being loud and boisterous,” noted Sister Desiré. “If I was like that, I think I would have struggled a lot more. But I behaved just like everyone else in the convent — very quiet mostly. You know, if I’d come in all ready to raise the roof with spirit and song, I think they’d been like: ‘OK, maybe you can turn it down a little.’ But I didn’t. I came in very quiet, and I think it was easier for them to embrace that.”
So what about her own vocation?
“I think ever since I was little, it was kinda like a thought in the back of my head ‘that would be really neat,’” she told me recently. “I don’t know where it really came from. Maybe from catechism class, ‘cause I went to public school where there aren’t any sisters. So I must have seen a picture of a nun and I was like, ‘Wow! That’s really cool.’”
The thought kept returning. In middle school she told a friend they really needed to join a convent. Her friend said they’d have to wear veils and would lose all their hair. But all through high school and into college at the University of New Mexico it was still floating around in her head.
And then when she was a sophomore, her Spanish teacher told her about a pilgrimage. Her reaction: “What’s a pilgrimage?”
It turned out to be a 100-mile walk over five days, from Albuquerque to a Marian shrine in northern New Mexico called Santuario de Chimayo. On it she met two Felician religious, Sister Margaret and Sister Danat. One was a loud-singing extrovert, the other good at one-on-one conversation.
“I loved both of them,” she said. “I was like, ‘They are great women. I want to get to know them.’”
She did, spending weekends at their convent. “All the sisters were just so joyful, and their relationships were so deep,” she said. “And I wanted that. I wanted deep relationships with others. I wanted that with myself. I wanted that with God. And I wanted to live a life of joy and meaning. And I wasn’t.”
What the 20-year-old was doing was dancing and cheerleading for a semi-professional basketball team called the Albuquerque Thunderbirds for $25 a game. She was also partying a lot.
But after graduating, the idea of becoming a nun was stronger than ever. And that September she moved into the convent.
Three years ago, after professing temporary vows, Sister Desiré started teaching at Pomona Catholic.
“I feel so blessed,” she confided. “I just feel like there’s not any other school I could have ever wanted to start at as a teacher. A lot of the girls here feel like it’s helped them grow in who they are as young women and more strong in their identity. And I feel it’s done the same exact thing for me.”