This column by Sister Sally Witt was originally published in our Summer 2020 Dear Neighbor magazine. We are republishing it digitally, along with a column by Sister Kari Pohl about Becoming Actively Anti-Racist.
Register to attend the book launch of Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle by Dr. Shannen Dee Williams on June 11, 2022, at Duquesne University. Virtual option available.
Historian Shannen Dee Williams does not know why she specifically named the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden when she spoke in London in May 2015. She was at the University of Notre Dame’s “Nun in the World” Conference, and in her presentation Dr. Williams used the example of Patricia Grey who had applied to enter our Congregation in 1960 but was refused because of race. Through an unusual set ofcircumstances, I was present at her talk. Later we conversed, and Dr. Williams said she used the example in other presentations but did not always name the Congregation that refused Patricia Grey. There is no explaining why she said it in London that day or why I happened to attend that particular session of the conference.
Our Congregation has no record that Patricia Grey, whose mother worked at the rectory at St. James Parish in Sewickley, had formally requested acceptance. No such letters from women who did not ultimately enter were retained in our files. Nor is there any shred of evidence that the letter our Congregation returned to Patricia Grey told her that we did not accept Negroes. It took Dr. Williams’s patient uncovering of the story of black women in religious life for us to learn this aspect of our history. Perhaps we would never have learned it had not Ms. Grey later entered the Pittsburgh Sisters of Mercy and, in 1968, founded the Black Sisters Conference. A few years later when Ms. Grey left religious life, she carried within her much of the experience of sisters of color in the U.S.
When I returned from London I shared what I had learned with Sister Mary Pellegrino, who at the time was Congregational Moderator. Disturbed and humbled, Sister Mary wanted to contact now Dr. Grey to ask forgiveness for our Congregation. We decided to ask Dr. Williams to contact her on our behalf. There were obstacles, including an incorrect e-mail address for Dr. Williams, as well as the surprise of reaching her in her office by phone just before Christmas. She was willing to contact Patricia and would be in touch with her soon.
After that, all of us silently carried prayer within ourselves regarding this wound. Patricia one day tried reaching me by phone, and I tried returning her call. Finally, on Holy Thursday we were in touch. I cannot describe her warmth and graciousness in that conversation. She reflected on the fact that it was the Year of Mercy and its unique grace was necessary for us and the entire world. We arranged for her to contact Sister Mary at some point.
The forgiveness that Sister Mary asked and that Dr. Grey gave is a grace beyond words for our Congregation, for religious life, for all creation. Dr. Williams has found a place for the story as she continues researching and telling of black women and religious life in the United States.
For us, one aspect of this grace is to hold the entire story. In 1960, as a Congregation, we told a young woman who wanted to spend her life with us that we did not accept blacks as members. That was never a written policy. It is opposed to our reason for being as well as to the foundations of Christianity and other world religions. But it was our practice, and, as Dr. Williams has learned, the practice of many white sisterhoods. We participated in this. Patricia Grey is now our friend, and for this we are immensely grateful. Yet we must be fully aware that we acted from prejudice and white privilege. This realization calls us to be open to finding other ways we have acted unjustly and to repent. In addition, it calls us to consider what our community, as well as religious life in this country, would be like if we were not in the grip of racism both overt and subtle.
(Dr. Williams, an Assistant Professor of History at Villanova University, is the author of “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle.”)