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 U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph calls us all to dismantle racist systems and work to be antiracist individually. As members of the Federation, we join them in this public statement:
“The U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph strongly condemns the police-killing of another Black man on the streets of our nation. Our hearts are breaking as we mourn with the family and friends of George Floyd, as well as Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, David McAtee, and all the others who have lost loved ones to law enforcement violence.
“The continued killing of Black people; the constant harassment of people of color; and the denial of the rights and dignity of our Black American neighbors must end now.
“Racism is America’s original sin. It is a virus every bit as deadly as COVID-19 that has infected our nation since its inception and until we address it, people of color will continue to die, and our nation will never heal. Racism, whether the institutional racism which privileges some at the expense of others or the daily acts of microaggressions, hate, and discrimination, diminishes us all.
“The resilience and well-being of humanity depend upon us dismantling these systemic, structural, and cultural realities of white supremacy, endemic to the fabric of our country. We commit ourselves to the creation of the ‘One Sacred Community,’ where all people are treated as the sacred creation that they are. Racism denies that most profound truth, that all of us are created in God’s image and each of us is entitled to dignity and respect.
“As women religious and their partners in mission, we acknowledge our own complicity in institutional racism. We pray for our nation’s healing, yet we know that is not enough. We ask forgiveness from people of color – without expecting or requiring it – to move into action. It is time for bold, decisive action – it is long past time to dismantle white privilege and rededicate ourselves to building God’s beloved community.
“As a Federation, we vow to turn our words into precise actions addressing the institutional racism that lives within our institutions and within ourselves. We vow to support criminal justice reforms, including a call for independent bodies that conduct investigations of police misconduct and broad, sweeping reforms to policing, incarceration, and the judicial system. As part of the reconciliation for the death of George Floyd, we urge Hennepin County Attorney, Mike Freeman, to pledge a just and timely adjudication of this tragedy.
“We call on the people of the United States to work with greater urgency to eliminate the systemic racism that infects the very soul of our nation. For the U.S. Federation, that requires us looking at all of our institutions and introducing guidelines to ensure that we are working to a more just society. This includes an honest look at the hiring and promotion practices at all levels, including the Federation, congregations, our schools, hospitals, and ministries.
“As we continue to work to dismantle institutional racism, we are all asked to do the deep, ongoing inner work that antiracism requires of us. This includes listening to, learning from, supporting, and elevating the Black voices from within our sisters, partners in mission, and more broadly.
“We ask God’s blessing on the struggle that lies ahead. We, as a Federation and as individuals, must do better.”
Last week, our Province Leadership Team in St. Paul, Minnesota, sent a letter to their local elected and church officials in the wake of the fatal arrest of George Floyd. Their letter was also published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Their letter reads:
Sadness, frustration and anger are but a few of the disquieting emotions resulting from the egregious fatal arrest of George Floyd of Minneapolis. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” wrote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Again we feel the pain that the use of violent force is wreaking.
We urge elected officials and the entire community to boldly address ways in which we demean or deny people their human dignity and rights. We implore our law enforcement agencies to pursue realistic alternatives to the use of deadly force. We support police training that places, as its overarching principle, respect for every individual in order to reduce the dangerous fear experienced by and of law enforcement. Let us act in ways that demonstrate that all lives, indeed Black lives, matter.
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet pray for the family of George Floyd, for all those struggling with his senseless death, the officers who must live with the results of their actions, and for the entire community. As a women’s religious community, we are impelled also to seek greater awareness of Whiteness and ways in which we contribute to the systems of oppression and division. We want to see all systems honestly and boldly address root causes of injustices. We are “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” again revealing systemic injustice causing indescribable suffering to all and disproportionately to our Black brothers and sisters.
Today, the Congregational Leadership Team sent the following letter to the province leadership team in St. Paul thanking them for speaking out:
We are writing to thank you for the letter you sent to the St. Paul and Minneapolis mayors and elected officials and to Archbishop Hebda about the murder of George Floyd and the deeply-rooted injustices that led to it. We were fortunate to be on the list of people who received the text of the letter. You could not have expressed the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet position better. We pray with you that your voice, our voice, will make a difference as the people of the Twin Cities try to recover from the trauma of this last week and move forward to a more inclusive community.
Congratulations also on having your letter printed in the May 29 edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. We know how rooted in St. Paul the CSJs are. Your words brought comfort to people and also supported them in peaceful and constructive action.
Our work on the chapter directions is just beginning. Your letter identifies racism as a system of oppression which we need to acknowledge and root out in ourselves so that we can walk together with all the citizens in our cities. We look forward to going deeper and journeying farther with you.
By Jenny Beatrice, St. Louis Province Communications Director
As a friend was telling me about her routine work woes, the conversation took a turn when she attributed the problems to the race of her employees. Shocked by her comment, I was speechless. I hoped that the look on my face spoke to my disapproval, but I knew deep down it wasn’t enough. How could I have stayed silent?
Months later, at the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet’s congregational chapter meeting, we recited a prayer that brought me back to that haunting moment: “When human dignity is not honored, may I speak out … When rights are not respected, may I speak out … When I am most afraid to speak out, may I speak out nonetheless.”
At that same meeting, the sisters called us to “bold conversation and prophetic action” to work toward dismantling systems of oppression. And I realized my silence was more than just a slip-up — it was part of perpetuating injustice.
In her book So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo says, “There is a good chance that you, regardless of race, have tried to have these conversations in the past. There is also a good chance that they have not gone well. So ‘not well’ that perhaps you have been afraid to ever have these conversations again. If that
is you, you are not alone.”
A relative uses a racial slur at Thanksgiving dinner. A co-worker emails you an offensive joke. A neighbor makes comments about the Black family that moved on the block. Knowing these uncomfortable situations will arise, we can better participate in “bold conversations” by being ready to respond.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s guide, “Speak Up,” recommends having a response in mind before an incident happens. “Open-ended questions are often a good response: ‘Why did you say that?’ ‘How did you develop that belief?’”
Describe the behavior, and don’t label the person. You can say, “You’re classifying an entire ethnicity in a derogatory way. Is that what I hear you saying?” Avoid labeling and name-calling (from “Speak Up”).
Oluo says, “If you hear someone at the water cooler say, ‘Black people are always late,’ you can definitely say, ‘Hey, that’s racist,’ but you can also add, ‘and it contributes to false beliefs about Black workers that keep them from even being interviewed for jobs …’”
You cannot control another person, but you can draw a line. You can say, “I don’t want you to use that language when I’m around.” Then follow through on your limits (from “Speak Up”).
Oluo says, “You must get used to being uncomfortable and get used to this not being about our feelings if you plan to help and not hinder people of color in the efforts for racial justice.”
Even when we say “all the right things,” we must remember that change happens slowly. Most people take small steps and don’t change their belief systems overnight. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of speaking out. Oluo says that you may not get very far at that moment, “But it gives people something to think about. These conversations, even if they feel fruitless at first, can plant a seed to greater understanding.”
So when human dignity is not honored, when rights are not respected, when we are most afraid … may we speak out.
This article appeared in the 2020 issue of Carondelet Magazine. Find downloadable versions of this and every issue on the Carondelet Magazine page.
Our congregation, in partnership with the U.S. Federation of Sisters of St. Joseph has planned a slate of events to recognize international Laudato Si’ Week and the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical.
All are welcome to join us. Attend our interactive virtual events, post about the importance of caring for creation on social media, and take action with us!