Honestly, were you aware that Black nuns existed in the Catholic church? It’s not something many of us knew outside of the movie Sister Act starring Whoopi Goldberg. Well, that’s Hollywood and their imagination for you. Seriously though, Black Catholic nuns definitely exist and have made valuable contributions to the Church in the United States, and theirs is a story that needs to be told.
Like many institutions, societies, and businesses in the United States, convents and other Catholic organizations were segregated by race for most of the 20th century. Historian Shannen Dee Williams, author of Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle explains, there’s an even older history of Black nuns in predominantly white Catholic settings who were ignored by these religious institutions.
The history of African American Catholicism goes back to the free Black Catholic community of Spanish Florida and Haitian immigration and slave-holding by American Catholic institutions. Despite significant barriers they faced, many Black women over the centuries felt called to join the ranks of Catholic celibates. Before the Civil War, some free Black women established Catholic orders in Baltimore and New Orleans. Others joined predominantly white orders — an option only available to lighter-skinned women. Because of this, they found orders that were perceived as white.
Williams’ narrative begins after the Civil War, and how the color line within female Catholic orders actually hardened in some ways. Only four Black women are known to have entered white orders between 1865 and 1880, and by 1900, most of these orders had explicit, formal policies against admitting Black women. These policies, which ensured that influence and power stayed with the white Church, remained in place until the Civil Rights era.
The story is told chronologically, yet always in the context of a theme, Williams outlines in her preface: that the nearly 200-year history of these nuns in the United States has been overlooked or willfully suppressed by those who resented or disrespected them. For far too long, scholars have unconsciously or consciously declared — by marginalization and outright erasure — that the history of Black Catholic nuns does not matter. The reality is that they have always mattered.
This book will undoubtedly make some people uncomfortable, as it shows how religious life was often a stronghold of white supremacy and segregation. It details how white communities rejected Black women, told them they could only apply to Black communities, or discouraged them from joining religious life; how Black communities were shunned or attacked; how congregations kept written and unwritten policies excluding Black women for decades after the civil rights battles of the 50s and 60s; and how Black sisters who did join white communities were subjected to racist policies and treatment. Many congregations owned enslaved people until it was outlawed during the Civil War.
While learning about these women, it made me think about the parallels with the Black church; how it is such a major part of the Black community. More importantly, Black women are a vital part of the church. While being the backbone, their roles have been suppressed and oftentimes forgotten. What we are seeing now are more women wanting to put their health, happiness, family, and community above the expectations that society places on them. I wonder how this same mindset can be placed on the church and why we continue to accept patriarchal attitudes and behaviors in the Black church. It does nothing but harm Black women. Perhaps, some things never change.
This book provides a full history of Black Catholic Nuns and how they have been pioneering religious leaders, educators, healthcare professionals, and Black Power activists. It also explains where they stand on the premise of embracing celibacy as a radical act of resistance to white supremacy and the sexual terrorism built into chattel slavery.
While the book’s focus is on the Roman Catholic Church as an institution, the similarities can be found in most institutions in the United States that remain controlled by white culture, and therefore serve as a window into how institutions have operated regarding the treatment and systemic racism directed towards Black people. Also, the misogyny that existed had a major impact on women. This is not a book of theology, but of the history and actions of people and an institution. It is a story of resilience and commitment by a community that continues to push for justice and equity.
This is an exceptional book that is well-researched, but it’s not a quick read. Being able to study the photographs in the book are a bonus. I learned about the racism and prejudice in the history of the Catholic Church in America, but an equal and much-needed eye for how Black women have done the heavy lifting to overcome. Sisters have been in the background of the Church for so long, and Black sisters even more so. It’s a wonderful tribute to the priceless contributions of Black sisters. Williams relates many important details as she narrates two centuries of Black religious sisters in the United States. She also effectively describes the white supremacist attitudes of too many Catholic bishops, pastors, and personnel of white religious orders that have taught in Black schools.
I rate this book a 5.0/5.0 and is a must-read for anyone wanting to learn more about the part of the Church’s history that has largely been ignored and more often erased. You’ll gain an appreciation for these Black women and their faithfulness.
Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle is available on Bookshop.org. Every purchase gives independent bookstores tools to compete online and financial support to help them maintain their presence in local communities.
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Archuleta is an author, poet, blogger, and host of the FearlessINK podcast. Archuleta's work centers Black women, mental health and wellness, and inspiring people to live their fullest potential.