The other night I had the privilege of attending a lecture on the history of black Catholic sisters in the United States, given by Dr. Shannen Dee Williams, of Villanova University. I was expecting to hear some profiles in courage, of women who had persevered through some challenging odds. Stories of courage certainly were part of the evening. What was astonishing, though, was the shocking realization of how many stories were not being told. We don’t know the stories of some black Catholic sisters because for years, they passed as white or Latina and have been remembered and documented as such. Some of these sisters became known to their communities only when their darker-skinned family members came to visit. In the face of community upset, some of these sisters left; others were forced to cut off ties to family in order to stay.
As horrifying as that denial may be, it is matched by the reality that we don’t know the stories of other black Catholic sisters because they never were allowed to enter communities in the first place. As Dr. Williams has shown in her research, buried in community archives around the country are documents proving that even as recently as the 1980s, some religious communities followed policies barring black women from becoming sisters. These women have been committed to oblivion by not being allowed to exist in the community record at all.
What is a Church institution’s responsibility for knowing and responding to injustice in its own history? A place like Georgetown University may have had to do a little digging to realize that they had owned and sold slaves to pay off a debt, but such a historic incident couldn’t have been too deeply hidden from common knowledge. Georgetown’s Jesuit leadership is to be commended for owning up to their past, and for now doing the work of identifying and attempting to make some amends to the descendants of the people who were sold. By contrast, injustice connected with admissions decisions is perhaps hidden a bit more deeply, kept a bit more quiet, at least hidden from generations of white sisters who simply thought “we’ve never really had any black sisters.” Unless one were on an admissions committee, or on the receiving end of such rejection, how would one know that a community had a shameful policy of not accepting African American applicants? Absence of people of a particular background may or may not be a neutral reality.
“Committed to oblivion” isn’t good enough.
Given the widespread nature of what Dr. Williams has uncovered, it seems to me incumbent on religious communities who haven’t already to take a good look into their archives and to see if any evidence of such exclusion can be found. Dr. Williams says that council minutes are a good place to start. Because so much of this history is solely oral history, communities may also need to invite sisters, former sisters, and would-have-been sisters to come forward and share what they know about how things were done in the past.
If we are to build peace, we must start with justice, and if we are to have justice, we need to know the truth. We need to know what happened. “Committed to oblivion” isn’t good enough. If actions done by our community were unjust, we need to be able to grieve them, and to see if amends can be made to those still connected to the events. We need to reconcile with those we may have hurt, and reconcile with God.
For more on Dr. Shannen Dee Williams and her research, including many of the pictures she shared at the lecture, see Dan Stockman’s 2015 article.
Catholic Theological Union’s Vanessa White interviews Dr. Williams in 2016 (about 10 minutes).