African American Catholic Women

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Editors: Rosemary Skinner Keller , Rosemary Radford Ruether , and Marie Cantlon
Date: 2006
Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 9
Content Level: (Level 5)

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African American Catholic Women

Cecilia A. Moore

THE FIRST KNOWN Catholic of African descent in North America was not a woman. His name was Esteban, and he was a slave. In 1536, he accompanied a band of Spanish explorers surveying an area now known as Florida, Texas, and Arkansas. Esteban’s story is important to the history of African American Catholic women because it manifests the presence and contributions of black Catholics from the earliest days of Catholicism in the New World. His enslavement was a harbinger of over 300 years of African American Catholic experience. There can be no understanding of the history of African American Catholics without an acute sensibility to the ways in which slavery shaped African American Catholics’ experience and engagement with their faith. Esteban’s story is important to the histories of African American Catholic women because it adumbrates themes particular to their experiences. His role as an explorer is symbolic of the innovations and initiatives in religious life, social justice, education, and religious and cultural expression that are the hallmarks of African American Catholic women’s history.

By the mid-sixteenth century, Spain was aggressively colonizing the Caribbean and the southernmost part of what is now considered to be the United States. Hoping to build an empire based on the agricultural riches of these areas, the Spanish enslaved Africans to work for the plantations they established. Young men of sturdy constitutions were most desired for slavery, but women were also imported to work side by side with the men and to bear new generations of slaves. Sacramental records from Florida and the Caribbean indicate that Catholic masters tended to abide by the requirements of the Church that slaves be baptized in the Church. Africans were also married in and buried from the Roman Catholic Church. By the eighteenth century communities of enslaved black Catholics existed.

But Africans did not arrive in North America stripped of religious sensibilities or convictions. The transatlantic voyages and consequent bondage did not destroy their religious traditions, values, beliefs, and principles. And while it is imprudent to claim a monolithic African religion, it is possible to identify characteristics West African religions share in common. Among these are faith in the gods and ancestors, the primacy of family and community over the individual, corporate worship, belief in the efficacy of prayers of the living to the dead, sacrifice to the gods, the idea of death as passage to a greater life, and adaptability in religious practice. African women held significant roles in West African religions. In some cases women served in priest-like roles. Elderly women enjoyed reverence because their communities regarded them as wise in spiritual and temporal matters. Women also served as healers, leaders of religious rituals, and the primary religion teachers of their children.

One way Europeans convinced themselves that they were justified in enslaving Africans was by asserting that slavery was a way to bring Christianity to Africans, whom they considered to be heathens. Skipping over the fact that Christianity has a much older history in Africa than in the West, Europeans contended that slavery was justified by bringing the light of true faith, faith in Jesus Christ, to a people doomed to damnation without it. Catholic Europeans involved in the slave trade particularly believed that Catholicism would save the Africans. Many Catholic masters felt a spiritual urgency and religious obligation to have those they enslaved baptized. The less fervent had their slaves baptized to stay in the good graces of the political interests of the time. Still others thought greater coercion over them could be exercised by controlling slave religious practice and theology.

Some Africans already may have been Catholic when they arrived in the New World, although this is not likely. But it is clear that not all Catholic slaves converted only because required to do so by their masters. There were slaves who freely chose Catholicism because they believed in its message. For these women and men, Catholicism may have resonated with their African religious beliefs, practices, and principles. Roughly parallel to their beliefs about the gods and the ancestors was the Roman Catholic communion of the saints. The centrality of the family and community over the individual in West African traditional religions was similar to the primacy of the Church over the individual in Catholicism. The Catholic mass replete with elaborate vestments, incense, Latin chant, liturgical movement, and mystery evoked the light, color, music, rhythm, and splendor of West African religious celebrations and rituals (Brown).

From the sixteenth century to the nineteenth century, African American Catholicism grew in areas where Catholicism

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Sister Thea Bowman was a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, a college English professor, and a faculty member of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana.

Sister Thea Bowman was a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, a college English professor, and a faculty member of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana. Addressing the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1989, Sister Thea challenged the bishops to confront the Catholic Church’s history of racism in the United States and to embrace the gifts of African Americans to the Church. Used by permission of Rick Reinhard.

and slavery prevailed. This meant African American Catholic communities established roots in Florida, the coastal regions of Alabama and Mississippi, Louisiana, and Maryland. In these areas the numbers of lay and religious Catholic slaveholders were significant. Maryland Catholics were particularly conscientious about having their slaves baptized, especially if they were children. Catholic slave children could have either black or white godparents and sometimes one of each. A significant number of Maryland slaves did marry in the Church, and Catholic masters tried to arrange Catholic spouses for their slaves.

The value of Catholicism to African American slave women is revealed in informal community recollections. Emily Mitchell is regarded as the first African American Catholic in Richmond, Virginia, and reportedly in the whole state of Virginia. She was born in Baltimore in 1824 to John and Priscilla Mitchell, Catholic slaves. In 1846 the non-Catholic Breeden family bought Mitchell for the purpose of caring for their children. The fact that the Breedens were not Catholic gravely troubled Mitchell. “It was a great worry to her that she might not be allowed to practice her faith, but after an assurance that her religion would not be interfered with she was quite happy” (O’Neill, 44). After emancipation, Mitchell went to live with an African American Catholic family in Richmond, and at age seventy-three the daily communicant became a Franciscan tertiary. She died in 1912 and was buried from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Richmond, the church for which she had prayed. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church was one of the first parishes established especially for African Americans in Virginia.

The quality of Mitchell’s devotion was not uncommon for black Catholic women. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, one may find women fully engaged with their faith in all manner of religious activities and charitable activities. These women joined sodalities, established and endowed schools and orphanages, created religious communities, and even petitioned Pope Pius IX to come to the aid of African American Catholics neglected by racially prejudiced American priests and bishops. They worked within and for the African American community. Slavery complicated, but did not deter, their endeavors, and these women succeeded in creating a strong and resilient Catholic identity and community.

At age fifteen, Anne Marie Becroft, a freeborn African American Catholic Washingtonian, started her first school for African American girls in Georgetown in 1820. Becroft had studied at the Potter School and the New Georgetown School in Washington, D.C., until the racist sentiments and intensified Southern fears about the dangers of educating blacks forced the schools to dismiss her. Becroft ran her day school for girls until 1827, when the pastor of Holy Trinity Catholic Church, a white parish with African American members, asked her to start a Catholic day and boarding school. With the help of Visitation Sisters, Becroft did so, and the school was an immediate success. Students hailing from Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., paid a dollar a month. Becroft ran the school until 1831 when she became a member of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, taking the name Sr. Aloysius. One of her students took the school’s helm after Becroft’s departure.

At about the same time, in Louisiana another lay-woman established a Catholic school. Born in Guinea, West Africa, Marie Bernard Couvent was enslaved as a child and brought to Haiti. How she achieved her freedom is not known, but once free she went to live in Page 162  |  Top of ArticleNew Orleans. There she married a prosperous free black man named Gabriel Bernard Couvent. When he died, he left Marie a good deal of property that she donated to start a school for free orphans of color in New Orleans. Couvent, called the “Widow Couvent,” became well known and respected during her lifetime in the city for her acts of charity. Her generosity continued after her death in 1832. In her will, she directed that the money she left be used to establish a Catholic school for free children of color. It was finally ready in 1848 and was called L’Institution Catholique des Orphelins Indigens. It was open to all children, not just orphans. The school gained a reputation for excellence, and later New Orleanians called it the Couvent School.

Father John F. Hickey kept the Journal of the Commencement and of the proceedings of the Society of Colored people; of the approbation of the Most Rev. Archbishop Samuel and the Rector of the Cathedral Revd. H. B. Coskery as a record of the weekly meetings of an African American Catholic society in nineteenth-century Baltimore. This document reveals ways in which African American Catholic women prayed and engaged in works of charity. Of the 250 African American Catholics who made up the Society of the Holy Family from 1843 to 1845, 170 members were women. One of the four society officers was a woman named Mary Holland. Holland served as first counselor, and her responsibility was to establish policy for the society.

The Society of the Holy Family met on Sunday evenings at 7:00 P.M. They prayed the rosary and had lessons in doctrine and spirituality. On occasion members would offer spontaneous prayers. Father Hickey noted, “Jane Thomson came out with the Gospel of John by heart” and “Jane came out with something about the rock of Peter” (Davis, 87). Society members’ weekly dues were used to pay rent to the cathedral and to have masses said for deceased Society members. They also developed a lending library of religious and inspirational books. The Society of the Holy Family was short-lived, commencing in 1843 and ceasing in 1845. Some white Catholics took exception to the meetings in the Cathedral’s hall, and the Society of the Holy Family was informed that it was no longer available. Without a place to convene, members disbanded and distributed the remainder of its financial holdings to the poor.

Racial resentment was a reality that all nineteenth-century African American Catholics experienced in their Church. As the United States drew closer to the Civil War and as the Catholic population boomed in the nineteenth century, principally from immigration from Ireland, racial resentment grew. New Catholic immigrants settled primarily in the northeastern cities and lived on the literal and figurative margins of society. They found work that no one else wanted and lived where no one else wanted to live. And though many had never seen an African American, they learned to fear them and what the emancipation of African Americans would mean for their own precarious social and economic standing. Catholic priests and bishops shared these fears and overwhelmingly voiced their public support for the continuation of slavery.

This situation inspired Harriet Thompson to write on behalf of a group of twenty-six other African American Catholics to Pope Pius IX in 1853. They wanted the pope to know about the terrible injustices black Catholics experienced within the Church with the consent of priests and bishops, most of whom were of Irish descent. They feared that the Catholic Church’s neglect of African Americans threatened the souls of their people. Thompson explained, “It is a great mistake to say that the church watched with equal care over every race and color, for how can it be said they teach all nations when they will not let the black race mix with the white” (Davis, 95).

Thompson’s reference to race mixing had to do with Catholic education. Writing from New York, Thompson knew of Archbishop John Hughes’s battle against the public schools and their Protestant underpinnings and of his work to establish Catholic schools in New York to protect Catholic youth from the “Protestant” public schools. But she also knew that Archbishop Hughes did not intend black Catholic children to attend the Catholic schools. In fact, Thompson believed that Hughes’s ill will toward African Americans was so great “that he cannot bear to come near them” (96). Because Catholic schools would not admit black children, this opened the door wide for Protestants to make inroads among African Americans.

Thompson shared the belief of many Catholics that faith and education were intertwined and that the Catholic Church was an educational institution as well as a spiritual institution. Denying African Americans the educational ministry was devastating to the Catholic Church’s spiritual ministry because education planted the seeds of faith and reason. African American Catholic children had to attend the “Protestant” public schools. In the public schools they learned “that the Blessed Eucharist is nothing but a wafer, that the priest drinks the wine himself and gives the bread to us, and that the Divine institution of confession is only to make money and that the Roman pontiff is Anti-Christ” (Davis, 95). To Thompson and to those for whom she wrote, the priests and bishops who willfully neglected blacks were responsible for this situation.

Harriet Thompson was a devout Catholic representing a faithful group. She was not the first Catholic to present a pope with grievances against the clergy, but neither was her action commonplace. That an African American Catholic community, represented by a woman, would presume to send such a letter is evidence of two Page 163  |  Top of Articlethings. First, it indicates the strength of this community in the nineteenth century. Committed to their faith, they were prepared to demand justice from the Church. Second, the letter reveals the leadership roles African American Catholic women exercised in the nineteenth century. The letter testified to the fact that black Catholic women’s voices were so respected that they could represent their community before the highest authority in the Church.

Concern for maintaining family ties was something most African American Catholic women shared in common. Slavery was particularly devastating to black family ties as slave parents and children could be sold apart from one another at the will and discretion of the slave owners. Catholic slaveholders were not above selling parents and children apart as well as husbands and wives, despite the primacy the Catholic Church assigned to families through its regard for marriage as an indissoluble sacramental union. The Metoyer and Tolton family histories provide insights into how some African American Catholic women kept their families together and Catholicism at the center of their family identities during slavery.

Coincoin Metoyer was born into slavery in 1724 in Natichioches, Louisiana. Her baptismal name was Marie Therese, but her parents called her by the African name Coincoin. As a young woman, Coincoin became the lover of a French merchant named Claude Metoyer. Together they had seven children, all baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. In 1778, Metoyer purchased Coincoin and their children and then freed Coincoin and their youngest son. He also gave her 68 acres of land, to which she added over 600 acres in 1794. With her freedom, Coincoin became an entrepreneur, a slaveholder, and a founder of a black Catholic community. She dealt in tobacco, indigo, and bear grease, and her mission was to secure the freedom of all her children.

By 1793, she had accumulated enough wealth to purchase all her children but one. Although she was not able to free this daughter, she did purchase the freedom of her daughter’s children. Ironically, Coincoin and her descendants became the largest black slaveholding family in the United States. At their peak, they held 500 slaves, 20,000 acres of land, and a dozen plantation manor houses. Coincoin instilled a strong commitment to Catholicism in her children and made church and family ties the defining features of Isle Breville, the Cane River community they created. After her death in 1816, her son Augustin became the head of Isle Breville, where he built St. Augustine’s Catholic Church, one of the oldest black Catholic communities.

Catholicism and family ties were also defining features of the Tolton family. In 1863, Martha Jane Chisley Tolton decided to row her family of three small children from slavery to freedom. A Kentuckian and a slave by birth, Martha became part of her master’s daughter’s dowry in 1849 and moved with her new mistress and master to Missouri. Two years later, Martha married Peter Paul Tolton, who was a slave on a nearby plantation and a Catholic. Their marriage was witnessed by a priest in St. Peter’s Church in Brush Creek, Missouri. Their three children were baptized in this church as well. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Peter Tolton determined to join the Union army. He planned to rejoin his family once the war was over, but he never returned. Believing that her husband had died in the war, Martha Tolton pursued freedom for their family by rowing a makeshift vessel across the Mississippi River to Illinois. She and the children had stolen away at night and with the help of Union soldiers were successful in escaping the slave catchers. Their dangerous journey brought them to Quincy, Illinois, where they settled.

Tolton raised her children in the Catholic Church, and her son, Augustus Tolton, became the first known African American priest in the United States in 1886. When Father Tolton started his ministry in Chicago’s African American community in 1889, Martha Tolton accompanied her son and helped him found the first African American parish in the city.

African American laywomen clearly played important roles in the Catholic world, but African American sisters were the most visible embodiment of Catholicism in the African American community from the nineteenth century through the early twentieth century. Between 1828 and 1916 African American women founded three successful religious communities: the Oblate Sisters of Providence (1828), the Sisters of the Holy Family (1842), and the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary (1916). Black women were among the first in North America to establish native religious communities. The religious zeal that inspired the foundations of these communities is captured in a prayer attributed to Sr. Henriette Delille: “I believe in God, I hope in God. I love and I want to live and die in God.” The charisms and missions of these religious communities reflected the values and needs of the African American community. Education and assisting the poor, the orphaned, and the elderly were the fundamental missions of the black sisters.

Race was also a factor in the foundation of these religious communities. White religious communities did not accept African American women until the twentieth century. The idea that African American women could live moral and chaste lives committed to God, as did white women religious, was unacceptable to many Catholics.

In 1872 Sister Marie called on Archbishop Napoleon Perche of New Orleans to show him her community’s new habit. As this sister had a fair complexion, the arch-bishop Page 164  |  Top of Articlemistook her for a white woman. Upon learning that she was a Sister of the Holy Family, he ordered her to take off the habit. The habit was a sign to the world that she had consecrated her life to God just as white sisters did. He called her “proud” for deeming herself the moral and spiritual equal of white sisters. The archbishop could not accept such equality.

As early as 1824, African American Catholic women took their first steps toward religious life in Kentucky. Father Charles Nerinckx, a missionary frontier priest to Kentucky, tried to establish a community with three free black women in association with the Sisters of Loretto, a white religious community. But Nerinckx’s community fell apart shortly after he established it, and he left Kentucky in the same year. Four years later in Baltimore, Maryland, Elizabeth Clarisse Lange and Jacques Hector Nicolas Joubert, a French Sulpician priest, founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Elizabeth Lange was one of the thousands of Haitian émigrés who came to Baltimore in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Most of these women and men were Catholic, and their presence greatly increased the black Catholic community of Baltimore. Father Joubert, also a Haitian refugee, worked among the black Catholic community that worshipped in the basement of St. Mary’s Seminary. This is how he met Elizabeth Lange, who conducted a school for girls in her home.

And by 1828, she, Madeline Balas, and Rosine Boegue had already begun to live a religious life informally. Their commitment to teaching children and desire for religious life prompted them to found a community with Joubert that would be devoted to the education of African American children, especially girls. Archbishop Whitfield of Baltimore approved the creation of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, saying he believed it was the work of God. But many Catholic Baltimoreans opposed the foundation of a black order. In the annals of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, Joubert recorded, “I had myself heard much talk. I knew already that many persons who had approved the idea of a school for pupils disapproved so strongly that of founding a religious house, and could not think of the idea of seeing these poor girls (colored girls) wearing the religious habit and constituting a religious community” (Morrow, 39).

On July 2, 1829, Elizabeth Lange, Madeline Balas, Almedie Duchemin Maxis, and Rosine Boegue made their first professions as religious. The women called themselves the Oblate Sisters of Providence because they regarded their mission of providing education, especially to African American girls, to be a manifestation of God’s care for African American people. For their motto they took Providentia Providebit, which means “God will provide.” It gave them inspiration and confidence as they cleared one hurdle after another as they established their community and pursued their mission.

One of the highest hurdles faced was raising the money to keep their ministries and community alive. Like all religious communities, they had to find ways to support themselves and their schools. Unlike other orders, the Oblates did not enjoy the patronage of the Church and its members. To support themselves in the early years, the sisters did embroidery work, made vestments for priests, and worked as domestics. The Oblates agreed to work as domestics for the Sulpician Seminary on the condition that their housekeeping responsibilities not interfere with their educational mission or with their practice of religious life. In 1835 the Oblates wrote:

We do not conceal the difficulty of our situation as persons of color and religious at the same time, and we wish to conciliate these two qualities in such a manner as not to appear too arrogant on the one hand and on the other, not to miss the respect which is due to the state we have embraced and the holy habit which we have the honor to wear. Our intention is not to neglect the religious profession which we have embraced. (Morrow, 51)

Accepting the housekeeping work presented the Oblates with a twofold “difficulty.” Housekeeping presented the challenge of meeting their religious and teaching commitments while working in a field that was not regarded with respect. The Oblates were black women living in a society that did not deem them fit for any life other than that of servitude. Without explicitly stating so, the Oblates called the Sulpicians’ attention to this reality. The sisters wanted a guarantee of the protection and respect that all sisters merited because they consecrated their lives to God. The Sulpicians agreed to the Oblates’ terms, and for many years, the Oblates worked as the housekeepers for the seminary while continuing to develop their educational mission and live out their religious calling.

In 1842 a second African American religious community took root, this time in New Orleans, the Sisters of the Holy Family. The primary forces behind this foundation were Henriette Delille, Juliette Gaudin, and Father Etienne Rousselon. Born in 1813, Delille was a free woman of color, a race and class unto themselves in New Orleans. Considered neither black nor white, they enjoyed privileges not accorded to free blacks or slaves. Most free persons of color had white fathers and mothers of African and mixed heritage. Such persons were most often the result of placage, a form of marriage usually between French men and free women of color. Placage was not legal or acknowledged by the Roman Catholic Church, but it was sanctioned by the Creole culture that dominated in New Orleans. Quite often placage relationships lasted for lifetimes. The fathers of children born to these unions provided support for their Page 165  |  Top of Articlefamilies and left their placage wives and children property in their wills. Often, the men were legally married to white women and supported the wives and children of these marriages as well. Within Creole culture, placage was considered an acceptable way of life for a free woman of color, and mothers often groomed their daughters for such a life.

As a young and beautiful free woman of color, Henriette Delille determined to reject placage and to serve God by pursuing religious life. Her biographer Audrey Detiege explained that “when other young women of their class were concentrating on their dancing lessons, gossiping about the latest scandals of the town, and dreaming of the balls and men, Henriette and her friends were coming into contact with the stark miserable realities of poverty and the sordid conceptions of slavery which indeed caused them to mature rapidly” (Detiege, 19). To Delille placage was an offense to God because God’s law required men and women to be united only in the sacrament of marriage. Delille and her sisters challenged the practice and advocated for legal and sacramental marriages of free people of color.

Delille’s involvement in social work, something that was not expected of a woman of her class and status in society, made her aware of the horrors of slavery and poverty in New Orleans. She gained this experience through her work with the Sisters of Soeur Ste-Marthe, a French nursing order that conducted a school for free girls of color and a night school for slaves. Through this religious community, Delille met Marie-Jeane Aliquot, a French woman who had pledged her life to serve blacks when a black man saved her from drowning. In 1836, Aliquot tried to establish an interracial religious community, calling the order the Sisters of the Presentation. Delille and Juliette Gaudin joined the Sisters of the Presentation, and they worked for the interests of poor blacks. However, the community’s bright promise did not survive for long because of laws requiring racial segregation in Louisiana. Two years later, Delille received permission to organize an informal sisterhood of colored women that would be devoted to instructing slaves in the Catholic faith. This was another step along the way to the foundation of the Sisters of the Holy Family.

In November 1842, Delille and Gaudin took private vows before Father Etienne Rousselon. At Father Rousselon’s behest, the women took the name Sisters of the Holy Family. Soon a third member, Josephine Charles, joined them. The charisms of the Sisters of the Holy Family are education and service to the poor. Between 1842 and 1862, when Delille died, the Sisters of the Holy Family conducted a school, an orphanage, and a home for the aged. They taught catechism to free children of color and slave children as well. They also helped to nurse New Orleans through a terrible cholera epidemic.

Both the Oblate Sisters of Providence and Sisters of the Holy Family indirectly contributed to the foundation of the third order of African American sisters, the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, founded by Father Ignatius Lissner, of the Society of African Missionaries, and Barbara Williams in 1916. Williams had been a member of the Sisters of the Holy Family, a member of a short-lived black Franciscan community in Louisiana, and a postulant of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, before founding the Handmaids.

In the early 1910s, Father Lissner established several Catholic schools in Georgia for African American children and staffed the schools with white sisters. This arrangement worked until 1913 when the Georgia state legislature began to consider legislation making it illegal for whites to teach blacks. Fearful that such laws would spell the end of the African American Catholic schools, Lissner invited the Sisters of the Holy Family and the Oblate Sisters of Providence to take charge. But neither order could help at that time because of other teaching commitments elsewhere. Lissner began exploring the possibility of establishing a new community of African American women religious, especially for the mission in Georgia. This was when he learned about Barbara Williams and her desire for religious life.

In 1916 Williams became the first member of the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, taking the name Theodore and becoming the Mother Superior. Soon she was joined by a small but committed group of women to take charge of the Georgia schools. However, the Georgia legislature did not pass the proposed legislation that would have prevented whites from teaching blacks. The white sisters continued to teach at the schools Lissner founded. The Franciscan Handmaids did teach at a new school Lissner founded in Savannah, but it did not provide enough income for the sisters to maintain themselves. They lived in poverty and took in laundry to supplement their resources. For six years, the sisters struggled to keep the order alive.

Lissner had left Georgia soon after the founding of this order. Despite losing their ally and supporter, the Franciscan Handmaids persevered. In 1922, the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary accepted Patrick Cardinal Hayes’s invitation to begin a new mission in Harlem. Thus the Franciscan Handmaids became part of the Great Migration of African Americans who moved from the South to the northern and midwestern industrial centers seeking better lives. And Harlem was the destination of many of these pilgrims. Before blacks made their homes there, Harlem had been the home of many European Catholics. These Catholics established numerous parishes and schools. As the African Americans moved into the neighborhood, the Catholics began to move away. Concern for these Catholic parishes and a desire to provide for the spiritual needs of Harlem’s newest residents prompted Cardinal Page 166  |  Top of ArticleHayes’s invitation. He wanted the sisters to be a Catholic witness in Harlem and to establish a day nursery for the children of working families. The sisters accepted the invitation, relocated their motherhouse to Harlem, and established the St. Benedict the Moor Day Nursery in 1923. They became involved in a variety of educational and charitable endeavors in the neighborhood.

The work of African American Catholic sisters and laywomen paralleled and intersected in the twentieth century as they worked to make Catholicism a vital force in the African American community. They launched initiatives in social justice, education, literature, music, and theology. As they sought to make Catholicism known to the African American community, which was overwhelmingly Protestant, they also endeavored to make African American heritage and experience properly understood and appreciated by Catholics. Lay-women like Mollie Moon and Anita Rose Williams became the backbones of Catholic Interracial Councils and African American Catholic women’s groups. They worked to bring about racial justice in the United States and in the Roman Catholic Church. Young African American Catholic women began integrating Catholic institutions of higher education in the 1940s and 1950s. Elizabeth Adams wrote Dark Symphony, Helen Caldwell Day, Color, Ebony, and Ellen Tarry, The Third Door: The Autobiography of an American Negro Woman. They published these conversion narratives to educate and inspire African Americans.

After spending time with Dorothy Day at the New York City Catholic Worker House, Helen Caldwell Day founded a Catholic Worker House in Memphis, Tennessee. Similarly, Ellen Tarry became involved in the Friendship House movement, whose goal it was to forge understanding, friendship, and ultimately interracial justice between African American and white Catholics. Tarry went on to help found the Chicago Friendship House and to write articles and essays about the African American Catholic experience and the need for racial justice. She also developed educational programs to foster pride in African American children about their heritage and also to educate Catholics about African American history and culture. While a student at St. Francis de Sales High School in Rock Castle, Virginia, Tarry converted to Catholicism. The Catholic tradition’s emphasis on the equality of all people before the altar of God inspired her conversion and her life’s work for racial justice and understanding.

In 1968 African American women religious as a body took up the work for racial justice, understanding, and empowerment through their creation of the National Black Sisters’ Conference (NBSC). Sr. Martin de Porres Grey, a Sister of Mercy of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, initiated the National Black Sisters’ Conference. The members were African American sisters from predominantly white religious communities as well as sisters from the three historically African American religious communities. The NBSC was founded during the civil rights movement and on the cusp of the women’s liberation movement. In 1968 the United States was in turmoil, and African Americans were in shock and grief over the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. African American women religious looked for ways in which Catholicism could make a positive difference in these circumstances. According to M. Shawn Copeland, a member of the 1968 gathering, “in a most proactive way, the NBSC promoted and advocated an ‘image’ of the black Catholic sister and her mission in terms of liberation. The Conference understood and presented itself as a grassroots organization concerned with the interests, protection, and development of the individual sister” (Copeland, 123).

In an effort to bring African American sisters together, Sr. Martin de Porres wrote to 600 superiors of religious communities in the United States to ask for their help and prayers. Only a third of the communities replied, but the lukewarm response of the superiors did not deter Sr. Martin de Porres, who enjoyed the support of her community. She described her motivation to go forward with the first meeting.

It was important that we get together so we could evaluate our roles as participants in the Church and come to a deeper understanding of our own people’s position and the creative tension now circulating in the black communities. We also hope to create ways of developing a living relationship between black and white. The core of the racial problem is basically spiritual and this is where the Church claims that the creative power of God is effective. (“An Awakening to Black Nun Power,” 48)

Sr. Martin de Porres saw the primary purpose of the NBSC as educational. She thought black sisters had to educate white clerics and religious about the causes of racial problems in the United States. Providing them with an understanding of African American history and culture was key. Sr. Martin de Porres also thought the NBSC would help black sisters take on more leadership roles in the Catholic schools, especially Catholic schools in predominantly African American neighborhoods. And the NBSC was also a means for African American sisters in predominantly white orders to have the chance to gather to discuss their experiences. Even though many religious communities had accepted African American women, there was still a subtle racism at work in most communities.

The NBSC held its first meeting in August 1968 at Mt. Mercy College in Pittsburgh. Over 150 sisters from Page 167  |  Top of Articleseventy-nine religious congregations from the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa convened for a week of prayer, deliberation, and planning. The NBSC invited some African American clergy and laity to attend and discuss interpretations of black power and the condition of African Americans. The women also discussed their relevance as religious sisters to the African American community, how to become more effective leaders in their communities, and how to incorporate black cultural traditions into the Roman Catholic mass.

By the early 1960s, internationally acclaimed jazz composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams was at work developing enculturated music for the Catholic Church. Inspired by the Vatican Council II and her own conversion experiences, she saw jazz as a means of spiritual conversion. Williams became a Catholic in 1957 after a spiritual journey she had embarked on at the height of her career. Because she was feeling “distracted and depressed” in 1954, a friend suggested that she read Psalm 91 for encouragement. She sat down with a Bible and read all the psalms. Of them Williams said, “[T]hey cooled me and made me feel protected” (Balliet, 85). After secluding herself in France for six months, Williams returned to the United States, determined never to play jazz again.

Her spiritual journey eventually led her to pray at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in New York City. Of this experience Williams said, “I just sat there and meditated. All kinds of people came in—needy ones and cripples—and I brought them here [to her home] and gave them food and talked to them and gave them money. Music had left my head and I hardly remembered playing” (85). All she wanted to do was to devote her life to prayer and to serving the poor. In 1957, Williams and Lorraine Gillespie, the wife of Dizzy Gillespie, took instructions from Father Anthony Woods and were received into the Catholic Church.

Not long after her conversion, Williams established the Bel Canto Foundation to help musicians recover from alcoholism and drug addiction. To support the foundation, Williams called on friends from the jazz community for donations of clothing, shoes, and other goods to sell at a thrift store. Williams ran the thrift store herself, stocking it with the finest shirts and shoes from Louis Armstrong and his wife, designer dresses from Lorraine Gillespie, and novelties like a mink tie and a hand-painted pool cue from Duke Ellington. She dreamed of buying a country house as a retreat for recovering musicians, complete with soundproof practice and meditation rooms.

Encouraged by Father Woods, Williams began to play jazz again. He told her that “its your business to help people through music.” Williams, performing in jazz clubs, also began to write hymns for Catholic worship. Eventually she composed four jazz masses, the most famous of which she called “Mary Lou’s Mass.” Williams saw jazz as her sacred gift to the Catholic Church. To her it was also prayer and a way to serve others. She explained, “I am praying through my fingers when I play ...I get that good ‘soul sound,’ and I try to touch people’s spirits” (“Prayerful One,” 59).

Williams’s desire to serve the Catholic Church through her secular vocation was characteristic of African American Catholic women in the twentieth century. At age sixty-one, Dr. Lena Edwards fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a Catholic medical missionary. After marrying, establishing a successful medical practice in gynecology and obstetrics in Jersey City, New Jersey, and raising a family of six children, Dr. Edwards went to live and work among Mexican migrant workers in Hereford, Texas. Originally, she hoped to do a mission in the South for poor African Americans, but her son, Brother Martin Madison, a Franciscan friar, told his mother about the medical needs of these migrant workers. In January 1961 she arrived at St. Joseph’s Mission in Hereford to serve as the only doctor. She decided to focus her work on prenatal care for mothers and children’s health initiatives, the greatest needs in the migrant community. Edwards learned Spanish and tried to live as much like the migrant workers as possible. She kept the same hours they kept, ate their diet, dressed as they dressed, and worshipped with them.

To better meet the migrant workers’ medical needs, Edwards built Our Lady of Guadalupe Maternity Clinic, which took care of women and their children in all stages of maternity and infancy. She contributed over half of the funding for the construction, and the people of Hereford gave the rest. Edwards also became an advocate for justice and education for migrant workers. She had planned to spend the rest of her life at the mission. The illness of her ninety-one-year-old mother and her own failing heart caused her to leave Texas in 1965. But Edwards continued to advocate on behalf of migrant workers.

In an address to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1989, Sister Thea Bowman challenged bishops to come to confront the Catholic Church’s history of racism in the United States and to embrace the gifts of African Americans to the Catholic Church. Sister Thea was a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, a college English professor, and a faculty member of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana. Like her African American Catholic fore-mothers and forefathers, she too experienced a form of bondage. Cancer bound her to a wheelchair and to extreme pain. Although she lacked physical freedom, she was able to make a positive difference for the entire American Catholic community.

In her songs and stories, Sister Thea spoke of the need to come to moral terms with history, of the persistent Page 168  |  Top of Articleneed for social and racial justice, and of the ultimate need for forgiveness, acceptance, and redemption. Of being a black Catholic, Sister Thea said:

What does it mean to be black and Catholic? It means that I come to my church fully functioning. That doesn’t frighten you, does it? I come to my church fully functioning. I bring myself, my black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become, I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African-American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as gift to the church. (Cepress, 32)

Bowman’s message and mission were not new. She inherited them from the generations of African American Catholic women who preceded her. She added a statement that reflects the perspective of African American Catholic women as they enter a new century. Bowman spoke of the need for the Catholic Church to accept African Americans as “fully functioning” members of the Church. African American Catholic women continue to celebrate their racial and religious heritage and continue to seek a place of equality at the Catholic table.

SOURCES: The History of Black Catholics in the United States (1990), by Cyprian Davis, is the most comprehensive study of African American Catholic history. Davis includes a chapter on African American women religious and provides many examples of other significant African American Catholic women in his study, too. To Stand on the Rock: Meditations on Black Catholic Identity (1998), by Joseph A. Brown, and Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution”in the Antebellum South (1978), by Albert J. Raboteau, are essential for understanding the role of slavery in African American Catholic experience. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, 2 vols. (1993), edited by Darlene Hine Clark, Elsa Barkley Brown, and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, features many articles about individual African American Catholic women. “No Cross, No Crown: The Journal of Sister Mary Bernard Deggs” (U.S. Catholic Historian15 [Fall 1997]: 17–28), by Cyprian Davis, Virginia Meachum Gould, Charles E. Nolan, and Sylvia Thibodeaux; Henriette Delille: Free Woman of Color (1976), by Audrey Detiege; “The Sisters of the Holy Family and the Veil of Race” (Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 10 [Summer 2000]: 187–224), by Tracey Fessenden; “A Cadre of Women Religious Committed to Black Liberation: The National Black Sisters Conference” (U.S. Catholic Historian 14 [Winter 1996]: 121–144), by M. Shawn Copeland; “An Awakening to Black Nun Power: Catholic Sisters at Pittsburgh Confab,” published in Ebony (October 1968: 44–49); Violets in the King’s Garden: A History of the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans (1966), by Mary Frances Borgia Hart; Response to Love: The Story of Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, O.S.P. (1992), by Maria M. Lannon; “Outsiders Within: The Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1830s Church and Society” (U.S. Catholic Historian 15 [Spring 1997]: 35–54), by Diane Batts Morrow; and The Oblates’ One Hundred and One Years (1931), by Grace Sherwood—all are essential reading for understanding the unique contributions of African American Catholic sisters. Dark Symphony (1942), by Elizabeth Laura Adams; Color, Ebony (1951) and Not Without Tears (1954), by Helen Caldwell Day; and The Third Door: The Autobiography of an American Negro Woman (1992), by Ellen Tarry, are four twentieth-century autobiographies of African American women who converted to Catholicism. These books give insights into how African American women perceived Catholicism and their places in the Catholic Church in the United States. “‘My Spirit Soared’: Ellen Tarry’s Conversion to Catholicism” (Sacred Rock: Journal of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies 2 [Summer 1999]: by Cecilia Moore, looks at how Catholicism influenced Tarry’s life as a writer and activist for civil rights. “Profiles: Out Here Again,” published in The New Yorker (May 2, 1964, 52–85), by Whitney Balliet; “Prayerful One,” published in Time (February 21, 1964, 58–59); and Tammy Lynn Kernodle’s “This Is My Story, This Is My Song: The Historiography of Vatican II, Black Catholic Identity, Jazz, and the Religious Compositions of Mary Lou Williams,” U.S. Catholic Historian 19.2 (Spring 2001): 83–84—these are important sources for understanding Mary Lou Williams and how jazz and Catholicism mutually transformed her life. Sister Thea Bowman, Shooting Star: Selected Writings and Speeches (1993), edited by Celestine Cepress, provides insight into the work Thea Bowman did to integrate African American cultural and spiritual traditions with Roman Catholicism. Other important works concerning African American Catholic women are The Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color (1977), by Gary B. Mills; Some Outstanding Colored People (1943), by Michael O’Neil; “Papists in a Protestant Age: The Catholic Gentry and Community in Colonial Maryland, 1689–1776” (Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland, 1993), by Beatriz Betancourt Hardy; Motherhood, Medicine, and Mercy: The Story of a Black Woman Doctor (1979), by M. Anthony Scally; Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams (2004), by Tammy Lynn Kernodle; and Persons of Color and Religious at the Same Time: The Oblate Sisters of Providence, 1828–1860 (2002), by Diane Batts Morrow.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2831700031