Mount Saint Mary College welcomed University of Dayton professor and African American historian Shannen Williams, for her presentation “America’s Real Sister Act: The Hidden History of Black Catholic Nuns in the United States” on Monday, October 3.
The talk was part of the college’s annual Founders Week, which honors the legacy of St. Dominic de Guzman and the Dominican Sisters whose vision guided the creation of the college. The college’s Catholic and Dominican Institute has sponsored the Founders Week celebration at the college every year for more than a decade.
The lecture discussed how generations of Black women and girls called to the sacred vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience fought against racism and sexism.
“‘No, only white nuns taught us in our schools,’ my mother relayed to me,” said Williams. “‘I wish we had Black nuns in Savannah when I was growing up.’ Stunned by my mother’s revelation, I set out to learn as much as I could about the National Black Sisters Conference and to understand the roots of the invisibility of Black nuns in our lives.”
Williams explained how her book focuses on recovering the voices of a group of Black American church women, whose lives, labor, and struggles have been systematically ignored, routinely dismissed as insignificant, and reduced to myth.
“Indeed when you ask Black Catholics why they stay, despite the fact that so much of what they have faced in the church was discriminatory, they say ‘We’re not leaving this church.’ What it means to be Catholic is to be universal, and we made the church Catholic,” she explained.
Williams is a historian of the African American experience with research and teaching specializations in women’s, religious, and Black freedom movement history. She is also the author of Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle.