Two books examine the black Catholic experience from different angles

Catherine Finley
Catholic Press Service

“Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long Fight for African American Freedom” by Shannen Dee Williams. Duke University Press (Durham, NC, 2022). 424 pages, $29.95.

“Fat Luther, Slim Pickin’s: A Black Catholic Celebration of Faith, Tradition, and Diversity” by Marcia Lane-McGee and Shannon Wimp Schmidt. Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, Indiana, 2022). 192 pages, $17.95.

In Catholic books, an African-American perspective is usually absent; these two books attempt to fill this important gap in different and complementary ways.

In “Subversive Habits,” historian Williams has delivered a remarkable piece of scholarship, which may be distressing to many readers because it dispels any doubt about the racist character of the American Catholic Church from its very beginnings.

This, unfortunately, includes the key roles the nuns played in building the church.

Williams writes, “Few thought about what it meant that most of the sisters ministering in the United States before 1850, including the country’s first saints and candidates for sainthood, were slave owners or people who relied on the brutal labor, sale and mistreatment of slaves. the people – and the economic benefits of whiteness and racial segregation – to establish and secure the financial future of their orders and famous social service institutions.

As she traces the hidden history of black sisters, she admits that the only black nun she ever saw personally was the fictional character Whoopi Goldberg in the movie “Sister Act.” So was her mother, both lifelong African-American Catholics.

Williams, a columnist for the Catholic News Service, tells story after story of the institutional and personal barriers to pursuing religious vocations for African-American women who, in many cases, were of mixed race due to their white fathers’ unions with men. black women.

Most white religious communities refused to accept black candidates unless they could “pass” as white – and in several cases when women in positions of authority later turned out to be black or mixed-race, they have been largely erased from the community. archives.

Due to a lack of acceptance by white religious communities, several black religious orders were founded in the South, primarily to serve in black schools and health care facilities, although many priests saw them as a ” profanation of the habit”.

In at least one case, a black religious community was not allowed to wear the habit in its early years so as not to elicit more communal opposition than necessary. Some women of color who wanted to enter religious life fled to Canada or elsewhere to be able to live their vocation serenely.

Even the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, established by Saint Katharine Drexel specifically to care for Native Americans and blacks, refused to admit African American or Native American sisters into her novitiate for many years.

In 1903, a Belgian priest ministering in Virginia complained to Rome about white religious communities. “In every convent of nuns, a girl with a little black blood in her veins is immediately rejected. It doesn’t matter if she’s educated, pious, pure, and truly Catholic, as long as she looks nigger or there’s the slightest hint of color.

Even after World War II, black women still had to struggle to be accepted into religious life, although their struggle was aided somewhat by the prospects of Vatican II and the civil rights movement.

In 1989, when Sister Thea Bowman, one of the best-known African-American nuns and then dying of cancer, addressed the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, she observed that most of those who minister in the black community are not black and “do not feel an obligation to learn or understand black history or spirituality, culture or life – black tradition or ritual.

As Williams makes clear, in the face of nearly impossible odds, black nuns have made impressive contributions to the church they love. “In the long absence of an empowered African-American clergy, black sisters have been the most authentic and effective leaders of the African-American community. …

“As educational and moral leaders, African American sisters instilled racial pride, molded community servants, and most importantly taught that racism and sexism had no place in the church – long before bishops and others did so collectively.”

The book “Fat Luther, Slim Pickin’s” shifts our focus from dedicated nuns to the laity and a folkloric look at daily life in black Catholic homes.

Authors Lane-McGee and Schmidt give the reader an informative insight into what the celebration of faith looks like to them, based loosely on the liturgical year, although the Ordinary Time section seems to be in an odd order.

The authors also have a podcast, “Plaid Skirts and Basic Black,” and provide a helpful multi-ethnic view of the Catholic experience, though there may be too many jokes for those who may not have listened to them.

They describe their goal: “As black women, we believe that there is a place for everyone at the proverbial table, and if there are not enough seats, we bring another chair.

“This journey through the liturgical year is intended to create additional space at this table for others to learn. In particular, we are here to sit down with our fellow Catholics from all walks of life to help us all better understand our culture, our faith and our hope.

“Fat Luther” explores several useful topics from black culture and history, such as appreciation versus appropriation, soul food, black hair, the black church, even code-switching and colorism.

Each season includes a companion, such as Saint-Martin de Porres, and a sweet sense of humor at times. “And here’s the thing: the Holy Spirit doesn’t care that your Advent wreath is made out of four tiny birthday candles you found in the bottom of a drawer. The Spirit will come as long as you make room.

Grab a chair and make yourself at home.

Also interesting: “Race and Rhyme: Rereading the New Testament” by Love Lazarus Sechrest. Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2022). 414 pages, $39.99.

Finley is the author of several books on practical spirituality, including “The Liturgy of Motherhood: Moments of Grace” and “Savoring God: Praying With All Our Senses,” and previously taught in the religious studies department at the University Gonzaga.

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