Black Women Continue To Face Racism In Catholic Church When Pursuing Religious Vocations

August 18, 2016  |  

Christian (business) woman/professional reading the Bible


This might not be talked about often, but entering the religious arena is a viable profession — for some. According to Shannen Dee Williams, Assistant Professor in the department of history at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Black women face racism when they decide to pursue religious vocations.

Women in general are sorely missing from the relational community. In fact, according to a national study done in 2010 by Faith Communities Today, only 12 percent of all congregations in the United States had a female as their senior or sole ordained leader. And according to Professor Williams, the percentage is even lower for Black women, especially in the Catholic faith.

This is due to a history of racism in the religious sector. Williams recently told an audience during a panel discussing racism in religious life at the assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in Atlanta, that “Black women desiring to serve a life devoted to the Catholic faith were not welcomed by religious communities with anti-Black acceptance requirements from the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th century,” reported Catholic News. Religious congregations in the 19th century actually had a test for accepting Black women into their ranks. If the women could “pass for white,” they were in.  And even those who did break through faced racism, such as being forced to take vows separately. Some Black women interested in entering the Catholic Church left America and “pursued their vocation by traveling to Europe to join religious communities that were more welcoming.”

Those who stayed in America and who still wanted a religious life began to form their own religious communities, starting in 1829 with the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore. During the civil rights era, the National Black Sisters’ Conference formed in 1968 with some 150 Black women in religion attending. (The conference is still active.)

The Catholic Church has yet to come to grips or address its racist history, Williams said, so Black women are still excluded from viable jobs in the church. “Black sisters matter, but they constitute a dangerous memory for the church,” said Williams, who is also author of the forthcoming book, Subversive Habits: Black Nuns and the Long Struggle to Desegregate Catholic America. Williams’ presentation on August 12th in Atlanta was entitled “Shattering the Silence: Black Women and the Challenge of History” and included Black nuns as panelists.

The issues Williams addressed touched a nerve with Black nuns. Following the Atlanta discussion, a number of sisters walked from the LCWR assembly being held in the Hilton Atlanta to Centennial Olympic Park to pray on the plaza outside the Center for Civil and Human Rights.

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