SAMUELS: Hidden figures in the Catholic Church

August 17, 2021

“As Christians, we are called to listen and know the stories of our brothers and sisters. We must create opportunities to hear, with open hearts, the tragic stories that are deeply imprinted on the lives of our brothers and sisters if we are to be moved with empathy to promote justice” (From ‘Open Wide Our Hearts. The Enduring Call to Love - A Pastoral Letter Against Racism’).

The stories of our African-American women religious is an important story to hear, especially during this time of recognizing the importance of a Catholic education in our community.

Catholic education has played an important role in shaping our nation since the first parochial schools were established in the 19th century, and our African-American religious sisters and nuns have played a unique role in providing religious support for the various church communities throughout the country.

For this exercise, I will examine three such organizations of African-American women’s religious orders.

One such organization is the Oblate Sisters of Providence, a Roman Catholic women’s religious institute founded by Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, OSP, and Father James Nicholas Joubert, SS, in 1828 in Baltimore, Maryland for the education of children of African descent. Oblate Sisters of Providence was the first permanent community of Roman Catholic sisters of African descent in the U.S.

The Oblate Sisters continue to provide education and religious support services in Baltimore; Miami; Buffalo, New York; and Alajuela and Siquirres, Costa Rica.
Next are The Sisters of the Holy Family, a Catholic religious order of African-American nuns based in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Sisters of the Holy Family were founded in 1837 as the Congregation of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Henriette DeLille, adopting the current name in 1842. Currently, The Sisters of the Holy Family ministries include St. Mary’s Academy, St. Paul the Apostle Church and School, the House of the Holy Family, Delille Inn, Lafon Day Care Center, Lafon Nursing Facility of the Holy Family, and the present Motherhouse all in the Louisiana community.

Furthermore, the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary is a predominantly African-American religious congregation of Roman Catholic women founded by Elizabeth Williams (Mother Mary Theodore) in 1916. Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary’s primary mission is in education, primarily the education of children of the African-American community.

Currently, there is an estimated 400 African-American women religious in the United States, which can be found in both the historically African-American congregations and in the predominantly white congregations from which they were previously banned. However, African-American women make up less than 1% of the nation’s vowed women religious.

Dr. Shannan Dee Williams, assistant professor of history at Villanova University, specializes in studying the African-American experience and focusing on women’s and religious issues.

“Black sisters understood the subversive power of Black history in the face of rampant discrimination, misrepresentation and erasure,” Dr. Williams said at a presentation in March. “Many of the women who joined the nation’s historically Black sisterhoods were the descendants of the free and enslaved Black people whose labor, sale, and thankfulness built the early American church. They understood how essential teaching Black and Black Catholic history was in the fight against racism in their church and in the wider American society.” 

Father Reginald Samuels is the vicar for the Ministry for Catholics of African Descent.