by Kim Westerman
As police shootings and immigration policies have shined a spotlight on racism in the United States recently, our congregation has made confronting and dismantling racism a priority. While we advocate for change in our society and work to examine our personal biases, we have also been grappling with our own congregational history.
Many organizations are taking similar steps through introspection and research. National news media covered other Catholic organizations that have sought reconciliation with or made reparations to the descendants of enslaved people in recent years.
This reckoning can be painful. “Recent calls for the Catholic Church to confront and make reparation for its long-standing histories of slavery and segregation have been met with genuine shock and confusion by far too many Catholics, religious and lay alike,” wrote historian Shannen Dee Williams, Ph.D. for Catholic News Service.
As we call ourselves to go deeper, journey farther, and respond boldly, our congregation and sponsored ministries are taking a hard look at our history and engaging in tough discussions about what we find.
“Racism — both overt and hidden — affects all of us; and it is the unrecognized racism lying deep in our unconscious that is the most insidious,” said Angela Faustina, CSJ, one of our African American sisters. “The role of the prophet today, involving some personal risk, as confronting evil always does, is to name racism where it is overt and to expose it where it hides by challenging complacency and providing opportunities for individual soul-searching.”
Our congregation was founded in the St. Louis area in 1836, a time and place where slavery was legal. Other congregations of women and men religious who were in the United States at that time have discovered that they owned or used the labor of enslaved people.
We have found no evidence that Sisters of St. Joseph were involved in holding enslaved persons in any place they lived where slavery was allowed, including Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Virginia.
Mary McGlone, CSJ serves on our Congregational Leadership Team, and she is currently finishing her second volume of a comprehensive history of Sisters of St. Joseph in the United States. Reflecting on her research, she said, “It is one thing to look at our history — and as we do so, it is important to see it in historical context. We can’t judge the past with today’s sensitivities, nor should we ignore the effects of past actions, culpable or inculpable.”
It is difficult to know definitively what was never documented. For instance, there is an unexplained trap door in one of the parlors in the St. Louis motherhouse, and legend has it that the sisters used it as a hiding place for people seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad. However, there is no documentation to prove or disprove this story.
We do know that before the Civil War, Sisters of St. Joseph were teaching children and adults of African descent in Missouri, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and, at least in St. Louis, they were subject to so much harassment for it that they had to close the school.
Many Catholic organizations are also grappling with their histories of institutional racism, and we are no exception.
Dr. Williams recently presented her research on the experiences of Black Catholic Sisters in the United States for province assemblies in St. Louis and Albany. “It is a story of grace, of perseverance, and uncommon faithfulness in the face of unholy discrimination,” she said. “I tend to tell people that it’s the story of America’s real ‘Sister Act’ — generations of African American women who were called to religious life and fought against slavery and segregation to answer God’s call in their lives and serve in the church, in their church.”
Dr. Williams’s research, which will soon be available in the book Subversive Habits: The Untold Story of Black Catholic Nuns in the United States, has identified both the overt and unspoken exclusion of Black women by many U.S. congregations in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of the stories she shared were shocking examples of blatant racism, but she also gave a sense of the insidious way that Black women were excluded from communities.
“An examination of our congregation’s archives did not find any documentation of whether or not we excluded women of color from the novitiate,” said Catherine Lucy, director of the Carondelet Consolidated Archive. She added that this type of research is difficult because there is no one place to find a definitive answer.
“Right now, our best bet and my hope for the future is that any sisters who witnessed discrimination will document those experiences and help keep the stories alive,” said Lucy. “Oral storytelling provides a unique perspective of moments in time that might not be documented in any other form.”
One such story is that of Barbara Moore, CSJ, who joined the congregation in 1955. She was the first African American Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet that we know of; others who identify as women of color but could “pass” as white may have chosen not to be identified.
“I have been blessed in having strong and supportive women in leadership positions during my entrance in community, formation, and ministries,” said Sister Barbara. “Also, most of the young women with whom I entered were gracious and kind. I am aware that some of the professed sisters had reservations about my entering; however, none ever confronted me personally nor was I aware of any overt discrimination.”
She found an additional support network through membership in local and national organizations for Black Catholics. “My membership in these organizations has been supported throughout many years,” she said.
Archivists and historians may scour our historical documents, but the best way to examine our past and move forward in hope is to talk about it. All four of our provinces have been focusing on racism by hosting workshops, presentations, film and book studies, and by forming racial justice committees. At the center of all of these actions is deep listening and discussion.
That is exactly what Dr. Williams urges the Catholic Church to do. “I would hope that people see that the Catholic Church has within it a beautiful, vibrant, and a central tradition of confronting and rejecting racial discrimination and segregation. And that the church has left us a powerful blueprint to be able to confront the challenges that we face today. But critically, if we want to face and find that blueprint, we have to tell the stories of Black Catholics. And so I think that is the biggest takeaway: that the church has within it everything that it needs to confront the challenges that we are facing with regard to racism, with regards to discrimination, with regards to becoming the true beloved community. And I think one way to do it is to tell the stories.”
This story appeared in the 2020 issue of Carondelet Magazine, which was published May 1, 2020. Find downloadable versions of this and every issue on the Carondelet Magazine page.
The third issue of the quarterly publication from the Carondelet Consolidated Archive is out now! “Snapshots in Time” features photos and artifacts from the CSJ archives. See any familiar faces?
As they are published, you’ll be able to find all of the issues on the Carondelet Consolidated Archive webpage on the congregational website.
Check out our latest video about the ministry of our sisters in Peru. Because of coronavirus, our sisters have been finding creative ways to serve the impoverished people of Lima and Tacna.
We rely on funding from mission talks in Catholic parishes each summer to help support our Peruvian sisters. Because of the pandemic, we have not been able to speak at these masses. Please consider making a donation to support our Mission Fund.
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Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet
10777 Sunset Office Dr., Suite 10
Saint Louis, MO 63127
From the Carondelet Earth Committee
Since we issued the invitation to you to lower and/or mitigate your carbon footprint in measurable ways, we have received a variety of reports on the steps that you have taken. Read on to learn the creative actions your sisters and associates have taken and resources that they recommend.
I looked up “carbon footprint” online and found some helpful information. I’m embarrassed to acknowledge I never quite grasped the meaning of that phrase. That’s why I looked it up and found useful info.
Things that make up your carbon footprint: all your food and drink, energy sources in your home, transportation, and travel.
Ways to reduce: use less energy (electricity), unplug electronics, heater and A/C, light bulbs, purchase foods from locals, less meat, laptop instead of a desktop, and avoid products with palm oil, look at how much I have, air dry clothes, and Waze app gives traffic info so you’re not sitting in traffic running your motor.
I have already been doing a variety of things but I didn’t connect them to “carbon footprint.”
Regarding climate change: I am recycling all my paper trash, recycling organic material for compost, lowering heat and cooler thermostat, recycling all aluminum cans. Reading Laudato Si’ as a cluster and discussing every two weeks. Emailing congress when I receive petitions regarding climate proposals etc.
I used some of my time at home to send a letter to Walmart, encouraging them to discontinue the use of plastic bags and letting them know that their customers will adapt very readily to bringing their own cloth bags, citing examples of where that is working. I hope to have an impact.
Sister Jane Hurley, my neighbor, and I started sharing a car. I will go to the bank for her when I go, and we both plan to drive less.
I also compost, recycle, and send money to have trees planted. During COVID-19, the Sisters at Carondelet Village have two shoppers who get our groceries if we want them delivered. We turn our grocery list in on Monday, and the groceries are delivered on Friday. I think I will continue to have groceries delivered because I buy less and just what I need. I won’t be tempted to buy sale items or other things I don’t really need.
I have tried to be very diligent in reducing my carbon footprint by limiting how much I buy and how much I throw “away.” There is no such place as “away,” in the words of Earth Mama Joyce Rouse. Garbage goes to a landfill, which generates methane, one of the worst greenhouse gases. I have been more intentional about purchases (reduce) and about finding ways to reuse things and to recycle. I am very excited about using a Terracycle plastic waste recycling box. These boxes are an expense, so it challenges us to put our money where our values are. We are amazed at how many plastic food bags and wrappers we have because we try NOT to use processed food.
I have also given trees for gifts through Heifer International and paid for carbon offsets through Terrapass. I am fortunate that the community car I use is a hybrid, and I am advocating for the purchase of more hybrids for our fleet.
I am very excited to be doing this with Sisters and ACOF across the congregation!
This year as we prepared the budget for the Congregational Office, we were mindful of the fact that we had just signed a commitment related to sustainability of the environment and that our 2019 Chapter had called us to respond to the crisis of Earth and global warming. Therefore, we calculated our office’s carbon footprint and budgeted an offsetting amount that we will spend in some kind of action that will neutralize that impact.
At the Congregational Office, we were very excited to participate in the global celebration of the fifth anniversary of Laudato Si’. We invited members to “Go deeper, journey farther, and respond boldly and creatively,” to the call of Laudato Si’ offering several opportunities for action. Our office bought a Terracycle box that allows us to recycle pens, pencils, and markers. Personally, I switched my shampoo and conditioner to a “bar” product, similar to a bar of soap. It works well. It has no microplastics in the product and comes in a paper box rather than a plastic bottle. We invited each person to take one more step in their journey to save our planet. This is mine.
Thank you to each of you who shared how you are making significant and bold changes to your lifestyle in order to affect climate change. The COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us how important it is that every one of us do our part to keep each other safe. The same principle applies if we truly want to have a positive impact on our climate crisis. The actions of each one of us are crucial.
Please continue to send in your experiences and reflections to firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to sharing more inspiring reports!
Who holds the record for long-term service in the Congregational Center? CSJ history buffs are going to say Mother Agatha Guthrie, who was either assistant or superior or superior general from 1866 to 1904. We think the next in line is Sister Mary Pamela (Pam) Harding who is completing 18 years as the executive assistant in the Congregational Center.
Pam began serving in this position when the 2002-2008 team began their term of office and has served three more teams. In the congregational office, Pam is the person who knows where everything is and who the “go-to” people are. When she began this service, the congregational office was still on the campus of St. Joseph’s Academy. Pam started with the congregation just after retiring from administration at the Academy, so she didn’t have far to move. However, she was destined to help move the Congregational Center twice during her tenure.
Now, after all these years of dedication, Pam is moving into a well-deserved retirement. In these years of quiet, competent service, Pam has taken care of almost all the correspondence with Rome, civil lawyers, and vice/province leaders and their staffs. She has tabulated congregational surveys, handled the paperwork for canonical issues, coordinated translations, compiled the yearly statistics report for Rome, and helped coordinate the details of four congregational chapters. Any wonder she is ready to retire?
The new team has relied heavily on Pam these first six months of their term. “We are glad Pam is not going far,” said Sally Harper. “I am sure we will be calling her when we need to tap into her vast reservoir of knowledge.”
Pam’s 50th Jubilee celebration was to have been this August until the coronavirus upended all those plans. If it’s within human power, that’s not going to stop the retirement party. We are planning to celebrate and thank her for her wonderful contributions later this summer.
Our sisters from near and far who have known and worked with Pam know untold details about how she has served the congregation well and generously.
THANK YOU, PAM! Enjoy the reward of freedom retirement promises. You deserve it!