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.
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!
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.
On July 14-28, our congregation will hold a Congregational Chapter, which takes place every six years. This gathering will involve more than 130 Sisters, associates, and support staff from across the United States, Japan and Peru traveling to St. Louis, Missouri. During the meeting, the Chapter body will create the “Acts of Chapter,” which are calls to action for our community. One of the Acts of Chapter from our last Congregational Chapter in 2013 called us to “act with urgency to protect [Earth’s] stability and integrity and to celebrate her beauty wherever we are.”
We know that climate change is at a crisis level on our planet and that all of our travel contributes to the problem. We also know that climate change is basically climate injustice because as we take advantage of convenient ways of travel, we simultaneously contribute to the conditions of climate disruption that disproportionately affect women, children, people of color, and other vulnerable groups.
By offsetting those emissions, we are acting concretely from our 2013 Acts of Chapter which call us to consider, “How does this decision/action impact the Earth community?” It is possible for us to make a significant contribution towards making our gathering carbon-neutral and therefore less of an injustice to our dear neighbors.
The following describes the efforts and actions that the congregation will be taking to offset the carbon footprints caused by our travel.
Our Congregational Chapter in St. Louis will necessitate a lot of travel for about 100 delegates, 22 from the Albany Province. Travel, especially by plane, creates a great deal of CO2. At this time when global warming is reaching critical levels, we need to take action to mitigate our impact on our Earth.
So what do you do when travel is imperative? Carbon offsets are part of the solution. According to Wikipedia, “Carbon offsets are measured in tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2e). One tonne of carbon offset represents the reduction of one tonne of carbon dioxide or its equivalent in other greenhouse gases.
There are two markets for carbon offsets. In the larger, compliance market, companies, governments, or other entities buy carbon offsets in order to comply with caps on the total amount of carbon dioxide they are allowed to emit. (These are caps agreed on in the Kyoto Protocol, for example.)
In the much smaller, voluntary market, individuals, companies, or governments purchase carbon offsets to mitigate their own greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, electricity use, and other sources. For example, an individual might purchase carbon offsets to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions caused by personal air travel. Carbon offset vendors offer direct purchase of carbon offsets, often also offering other services such as designating a carbon offset project to support or measuring a purchaser’s carbon footprint. In 2016, about $191.3 million of carbon offsets were purchased in the voluntary market, representing about 63.4 million metric tons of CO2e reductions” (Wikipedia, “Carbon Offsets”).
It is very exciting that voluntary carbon offsets are becoming so popular! After calculating our offsets, we learned that a round trip from Albany to St. Louis creates about 1,148 pounds of carbon dioxide and that our estimated offset cost for 22 delegates at $5.73 per trip would be about $127. (https://www.terrapass.com/calculate-carbon-offsets). This is an estimate because not everyone is flying from Albany and some trips necessitate two layovers, which create more carbon dioxide.
The really good news is that our Province Leadership Team has pledged $150 and the HomeLand Committee will give $200 toward offsets. This is more than double the actual cost of offsets!
It was decided that we would make this donation to Heifer International to plant trees in Heifer-sponsored projects. This really fulfills two goals: first, our offsets to mitigate greenhouse gases and second, our food focus since the trees will aid farmers in developing countries. According to Heifer International:
This tree gift includes seedlings and saplings of trees appropriate to the region. Recipients are educated on nurturing young trees and the importance of reforestation.
A family with a small orchard is able to supplement their diet with delicious fruits and vegetables while becoming self-reliant at the same time. Passing on the seedlings enables communities to continue the cycle of sustainability. Your plant a tree gift ensures a healthy, productive future while fighting poverty and hunger.
We are working to fulfill our call to action of the 2013 Chapter which challenges us “to ask in every deliberation, “How does this decision/action impact the Earth community.”
Each Congregational Chapter calls us to respond to the needs of the times. Within our provinces, we then “divide the city” and respond in diverse ways. This is exactly how a group of sisters, associates, and partners from across the Congregation responded to the 2013 Call “…to ask in every deliberation, ‘How does this decision/action impact the Earth community?'”
We met through Zoom to discuss one of our primary concerns: Climate Justice. We acknowledged our role in the injustices caused by a lifestyle that is degrading Earth systems and displacing Earth’s human and other-than-human communities. It became clear that our congregation must offset the carbon impact of our Congregational Chapter. We strategized ways to act locally regarding our carbon footprint and then went to our prospective province leadership teams to request action.
Here in the Los Angeles Province, we used a reliable carbon calculator to determine the tonnes of carbon released into Earth’s atmosphere because of our travel to and from Province Chapter. We will be doing the same for our travel to the Congregational Chapter in July. We then contributed the calculated amount (in dollars) to Community Healing Gardens in Santa Monica. They give a monthly harvest to the St. Joseph Center’s Bread and Roses Café where they serve over 100 meals to those who are homeless or transitioning back into society through their program. In addition, the Healing Gardens offer an urban school garden program. Urban gardening, removes carbon from the atmosphere, reducing the climate injustice caused by our travel activity.
Albany, St. Louis and St. Paul provinces have also offset their carbon footprint in diverse ways, according to the local needs. May we continue to “think congregational and act provincial” as we celebrate our diversity in communion within the Congregation of the Great Love of God.
What does CO2 have to do with our last Province Chapter?
One of the things we did at our last chapter was to count our carbon footprint in traveling back and forth to the meeting. We roughly put into the atmosphere 10 tons of CO2, which, believe it or not, was not as bad as we thought it was going to be. We did better because more people are carpooling, many people live in the St. Louis area, and we are purchasing hybrids and fuel-efficient cars.
But here’s a reality check: the average American releases between 16 and 20 metric tons of CO2 and in Peru the average household releases 1.8 metric tons of CO2.
So as you can see, we have a ways to go to be more sustainable. That is why we decided to purchase carbon offset credits.
What are carbon offset credits?
According to the Sierra Club, the term “offset” might imply that you are “neutralizing” the impact of your travel, and thus it has no impact. This is not the case. Once you have emitted carbon, it is released into the atmosphere, and you can’t “take it back.” What offsetting does is help reduce carbon emissions elsewhere.
The province has purchased carbon offsets from:
These donations do not make up for our carbon usage. It’s more of an investment in the future so that less carbon will be used in other parts of the world. It’s a way to remind each of us that how we live costs more to the environment than we realize.
Why not give Mother Earth a gift?
So why not give Mother Earth the gift of carbon offsets? Use the links above to visit the websites for the organizations from which the province chose to purchase carbon offsets. It’s simple, inexpensive, easy, and it says “I care about Earth!”
Thank you for caring for Creation today and every day!
St. Paul participates in the congregational action to mitigate our carbon footprint caused by travel to Congregational Chapter meetings in St. Louis. Fourteen delegates will travel by airplane and six will travel in three cars.
We will offset the carbon use by dedicating money to plant trees on our St. Paul campus woodland area. We will include a community ritual with an educational component at the time of planting.
Our vice-province of Peru is going to donate $100 toward local environmental projects where we are serving as Sisters of St. Joseph. One project will take place in Las Brisas where the Sisters are working with the parish community to add a garden area at the parish church. The other project is in the Canto Chico neighborhood in Lima, where our sisters will be involving the children in a project to plant trees in the neighborhood park. The children will learn how to care for the plants and will be responsible for watering and protecting the plants.
Thanks to its sponsorship by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Avila University recently acquired the licensing rights and archival materials and footage from the making of the documentary Sisters of Selma. Three Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Sisters Rosemary Flanagan, Barbara Moore and Roberta Schmidt, were featured prominently.