By Jennifer L. Warren
NEWBURGH – It’s an uncomfortable truth. Their shocking revelations are filled with shame. It’s part of our too often hidden history. And according to Dr. Shannen Dee Williams, it’s a story, filled with “Forgotten Prophets,” whose trailblazing actions undeniably deserve to be told.
Last Monday evening, inside of Mount Saint Mary College’s Dominican Center, Dr. Williams unveiled those little known, covert, yet still very transformative pearls of wisdom, as she presented the College’s Founder’s Week lecture, “The Real Sister Act.” Uncovering the hidden history of Black Catholic nuns in the United States, the Associate Professor of History at the University of Dayton, delved into the story of how generations of Black women and girls committed to the sacred vows of chastity, poverty and obedience battled and endured racism, sexism and exclusion in their unwavering quests to become consecrated women of God in the Roman Catholic Church.
“This is a story we need to be aware of,” Dr. Charles Zola, MSMC Associate Professor of Philosophy told guests as he introduced the night’s highly revered speaker. “Discrimination by the Church did take place.”
That long, painful journey, laden with rejection letters to join white nuns in study, locked up records of blatant discrimination toward Black nuns, not being able to wear habits of their white nun counterparts, evils of integration, as well as overall lack of respect shown to them is thoroughly elaborated upon by Dr. Williams in her recently released book, Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African-American Freedom Struggle, released in April, 2022. Williams, raised a Catholic and now a world leading authority on Black nuns, knew nothing of their existence as a youth in Memphis, Tennessee.
“I wish I had known there were Black nuns; they were never talked about at all in school, and the only one I ever even heard of was the fake one from the movie Sister Act,” said Williams. “How would I even know Black nuns existed?”
That reality quickly changed in 2007, when Williams, a Graduate student at the time, was in the Rutgers Library, desperately seeking a topic for a paper in an African-American History Seminar. Catapulted by the content of an article she came across on Black Catholic nuns forming a National Black Sisters Conference, she immediately knew she had secured the ideal, potent topic for her paper. The spark of discovering this elusive group of pioneers (along with the newfound knowledge of eight historically Black Roman Catholic Sisterhoods founded in the U.S.) further set Williams out on a passionate 14 year journey to absorb as much information-truth- as possible about these pioneer nuns and the Conference. Delving into overlooked archives, previously sealed church records, out-of-print-books, while conducting over 100 interviews, Williams not only became an expert on this hidden, critical part of history, but experienced a rollercoaster of emotions in the process.
“For far too long the opinion of the history of Black nuns was that it didn’t matter,” said Williams. “My book shows it does matter.”
Taking her readers through almost 200 years of history of Black nuns in the United States in the book, starting with the pre-Civil War Era and including the Civil Rights time period, Williams discusses the complex connections of white supremacy, slavery, sexual terror, and segregation, tied to their struggle to achieve acceptance. She further pays tribute to those unsung heroes who refused to cower to racism and be denied their life calling by forming the National Black Sisters Conference. Names like, Conference Organizer, Sister Martin de Porres Grey, someone who told Williams, “We were the first Black Sisters to revolt” and Williams says “changed my life,” and Sister Cora Marie Billings, who at 17 years old was the first Black person admitted to Philadelphia’s Sisters of Mercy, and another Philadelphia Sister, Mary Antona Ebo, are brought to life through Williams’ honest, heart-felt words.
Despite their humility about their achievements as well as initial hesitation to share their stories, these Black nuns eventually opened up once they were presented with the once hidden factual data Williams presented.
“I found out it’s the way trauma silences people,” Williams told her audience Monday night about their resistance.”
Williams herself learned through writing the book the potency of that silence. She discussed how many she approached refused to talk to her, denied the Church discrimination of Black nuns in this country, and simply tried to push away its existence. However, Williams, like the “prophets” she has been determined to give their due credit to, absolutely refused to give up.
“These women maintained the faith, no matter what they went through; they would survive,” Williams said about the Black nuns in this country. “This book is proof: the history of the Black Catholic nuns matters; it has always mattered.”