Heeding the Call of Their Founders, Women Religious Combat Racism

By Graham, Kate Childs | National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 2010 | Go to article overview

Heeding the Call of Their Founders, Women Religious Combat Racism


Graham, Kate Childs, National Catholic Reporter


In 1945, when Mary Paul heard God's call to religious life, she could not enter any community of women religious in her hometown of Philadelphia, including the Sisters of Mercy. Not because her vocation was untrue, but because she was a person of color. At the time, women of color in the city were referred to three orders: the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, the Franciscan Handmaids of Mary in Harlem, N. Y., or the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans--communities comprised mostly of women of color. Paul entered the Baltimore order. Her story is the story of many other women of color who were refused entrance to so-called "white" communities.

Just a year later, however, Mother Mary Bernard became the superior of the Merion Regional Community of the Sisters of Mercy in Philadelphia. Bernard asked her novices to pray for the entrance of a "colored sister" into the community. And in 1956, after being educated by the Mercy sisters in high school, Sr. Cora Marie Billings, Paul's niece, entered the community and Bernard's prayers were answered.

Reflecting on her journey as a Sister of Mercy and a person of color, Billings said, "I've always been either the first or the only." Being the first or the only was not easy, especially in the beginning. "It was difficult for the sisters I lived with because some of them had never interacted with an African-American person, much less lived with any," she recalled.

In 1980, at a gathering of Sisters of Mercy, Billings gave a presentation on racism. "At the time, there were about 10,000 Sisters of Mercy," she explained, "and only five were African-American."

During that presentation, she explained how the congregation's foundress, Mother Catherine McAuley, always reached out to the people in the neighborhoods, and vocations grew from her outreach. "In 1980," Billings said, "we had been working in at least 20 or more neighborhoods of African Americans. But we weren't drawing vocations from those neighborhoods. We weren't fulfilling what Mother McAuley wanted."

This realization--that the work of antiracism and multiculturalism is a part of their mission, that racism hurts not only people of color but all people, that they were not doing what their founders wanted--spurred the Sisters of Mercy to begin to look inward at the racism that existed within the very bones of their congregations.

Other congregations have followed the same path of self-examination in recent decades, including the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Ind., and the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wis. And their zeal for racial justice in church and society is rooted in their founding moments.

When St. Mother Theodore Guerin, the foundress of the Sisters of Providence, traveled to New Orleans in the 1840s, she witnessed the selling of slaves. In her writings, Guerin noted what a "painful sight" this "shameful traffic" was. She declared, "Lo! I said to myself, these Americans, so proud of their liberty thus make game of the liberty of others. ... I would have wished to buy them all that I might say to them, 'God bless Providence. You are free!'"

Venerable Fr. Samuel Mazzucelli, founder of the Sinsinawa Dominicans, saw similar injustices, those faced by Native Americans. As a young priest, Mazzucelli was sent to be a missionary in the Great Lakes region, where he witnessed the plight of the Menominee and Winnebago natives. As the government tried to remove Native Americans and take their land, Mazzucelli decried these actions of injustice. The priest incorporated Native American culture, language and spirituality into the schools he built, employing native teachers. And in 1833 and 1834, he published a Winnebago prayer book and liturgical almanac in Chippewa.

Throughout her life, McAuley ministered to those who were living in poverty or uneducated. She told her sisters, "Never speak with contempt of any nation, profession, or class of people. …

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