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.”

Angela Faustina, CSJ quote

No Known Connections to Slavery

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.

Racism Within Our Institution

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.

Moving Forward

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.”

Shannon Dee Williams, Ph.D quote

 

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.

   July 10th, 2020      Posted In: Congregation, Featured Stories, In The News, Justice, St. Louis