March is Women’s History Month
Catholic Sisters subject of upcoming book by Dr. Shannen Williams
The role of African American Catholic Sisters is rarely cited in books on Black History, but Dr. Shannen D. Williams is about to change that with her forthcoming book, “Subversive Habits –Black Nuns and the Long Struggle to Desegregate Catholic America After World War I.”
Williams, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, is meticulously unearthing the long-buried background of scores of Black women in religious orders. During a recent presentation at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, she revealed the discrimination, racism and marginalization African Americans encountered in their quest to become nuns.
“In many ways, the history of Black sisters changes the memory of the church. It reminds us that the church has not always been universal and it has not been in the forefront of racial justice when it should have if we base it on Catholic social teachings. It requires us to confront the church’s history of segregation, racism and slavery,” said Williams.
Her lecture shared insight on Black trailblazers such as Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, who founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first successful Catholic sisterhood for women of African descent in Baltimore in 1829, and Henriette DeLille, who established the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1836 in New Orleans. Both women have been nominated for sainthood in the Catholic Church.
Williams also highlighted the journeys of more contemporary women including Elaine M. Clyburn who sought to enter the Sisters of St. Joseph (CSJ) of Buffalo, NY in 1952. Because she was black, Clyburn was refused admission even though CSJ had educated her. Another example was Sister M. Martin de Porres (Patricia Muriel) Grey, Religious Sisters of Mercy (RSM), who was denied admission, because of her race, into the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, Pennsylvania in 1960. The following year, she became the first Black nun in the RSM Pittsburgh Chapter and later became the first president of the National Black Sisters’ Conference.
“These are women who were excluded from entering religious life until well into the 20th century solely on the basis of race. Yet, they dedicated themselves to the celibate life to help their community,” she noted.
Sister Ingrid Honore-Lallante with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelent, Los Angeles Province, is one of those dedicated women. She entered her order in 1971 and has experience discrimination during her career.
“I couldn’t go everywhere or do everything (because of race). I rode to California on the floor on the back seat of the car when we migrated from the south to the west because it wasn’t okay for us to be seen (together),” recalled Honore-Lallante.
Despite such memories, she doesn’t regret becoming a nun. “Like any other lifestyle, it has its challenges and it’s only God’s grace that gets me through. I’m so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to pray everyday, I’ve had a great education and have had opportunities that I couldn’t have imagined if I were not a sister of St. Joseph. I feel like it’s a good life,” she said.
Williams, who is a life-long Catholic, hopes her book will enlighten all people about the contributions, courage and determination of Black nuns.
“I think the history of Black sisters is the history of the uncommon faithfulness of the African American community. It reminds us the African Americans have always fiercely resisted segregation and discrimination in the church,” said Williams.
“I think this book will also remind us that this history is the history of erasure, it reminds us that one of the most dangerous and greatest weapons of white supremacy has been its ability to erase the history of its violence and its victims. I think the elusive history of Black Catholic sisters underscores that reality.”