SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – The topic of racism can be a source of conflict, and when Sister Melinda Pellerin finds herself in sensitive conversations about it, she lets her faith guide her response.
“And so, I’ve had to get to the point where I can go many ways with this, but I’m going to go the way of Jesus,” she said. “I try to look at everyone as beloved, a child of God.”
Sister Pellerin, who took her perpetual vows as a Sister of St. Joseph of Springfield in 2019, was the first and is still the only African-American sister in her congregation.
She was interviewed as part of a television series about black Catholics produced by the Catholic Communications Department of the Diocese of Springfield. She is currently a pastoral minister at Holy Name Church in Springfield.
Responding to the gospel call to seek racial justice, Sister Pellerin said Catholics are well equipped to meet the challenge.
“Think about Catholicism and what that word means,” she said. “We are a family and if our family members are hurting, suffering or being persecuted, we are obligated to do something. And our obligation means starting an educational experience by teaching people about it.”
She said the first step in this educational experience is to do something that Jesus did very well: listen.
“But I want you to hear with your ears and with your heart, what it’s all about,” she told the interviewer, “and, as a white woman, you haven’t experienced it. , but walk with me because I can tell you how I live it.”
Like other black Catholics interviewed for the series, Sister Pellerin’s roots are in Broussard, Louisiana, where the shadow of racism loomed over the most sacred moment in the Catholic liturgy: the reception of the Eucharist.
“And my grandmother and my great-grandmother would tell me stories about ‘Oh, and we would go to church, black people had to sit in the back and white Catholics would sit in the back. ‘before, then my dad used to communicate to white Catholics first, ‘then put on gloves and give us communion.’
But when Sister Pellerin asked her great-grandmother why she chose to stay in a segregated church, her response was: “And she said, ‘It’s not about where I’m sitting in this church , it’s about looking at that cross. And I’ve dedicated my life to Jesus and what Jesus wants to do. And I’m going to fight that it isn’t always like that.”
Growing up as a Catholic in the former Holy Family Paris Church in Springfield, Sister Pellerin still wondered why her family was in the “white church” — until the Diocese of Springfield ordained its first African-American priest. , Father Warren Savage, in 1979.
“And I really learned the history of my church, which is part of the Catholic Church,” she said. “Very few Catholics know about the rich history that we have brought to the Catholic Church.”
But since becoming a Sister of St. Joseph, this former award-winning teacher has used her teaching skills to share the history of black Catholics, including working with the Federation of Sisters of St. Joseph to create a “Juneteenth Calendar.” .
“But we didn’t just do June 15,” she said. “Each (day) in June, I highlighted a different person from Africa who was a Christian in the Early Catholic Church and African American Catholics.”
And while studying the history of black Catholics reveals racism in the church, Sister Pellerin said black Catholics can lead the way to healing and reconciliation.
“Black Catholics have dealt with this division in the church since black Catholics started going to church and I’m always like, ‘We know how, without any way, we found a way. And so, within this church, and within the segregation of the Catholic Church, our spirituality can come; we can celebrate that.”
Suggesting a way to begin the healing process, she cited the example of the Bishop of Springfield, William D. Byrne, who shortly after his ordination and installation in December 2020 held a holy hour and Eucharistic adoration. to pray for the healing of victims of clergy abuse.
“I loved the bishop when he was meeting and there was a prayer service for people who had been hurt by priests, and when he was in front of the Eucharist I was like, ‘We have to do this for, not only these cases, but for the racism in this country: go before the Eucharist and pray about it.'”
It was closeness to Christ in the Eucharist, she said, that gave strength to black Catholics who faced discrimination both inside and outside the church.
“African American Catholics understand it through racism and separation and Jim Crow: they always went to that church and sat in the back and received communion, whether that priest put on a glove, he doesn’t it wasn’t about that glove,” she said. “It was about that, the Eucharist, the body of Christ. That’s what I’m going to take into me and what I’m going to take with me.”
Drake is editor/news director for the Catholic Communications Ministry of the Diocese of Springfield.