The hidden history of black nuns in America will be explored at Mount Mercy on Thursday night

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The Untold Story of Black Catholic Nuns in the U.S.

Mount Mercy University — Thursday, March 8 at 7 p.m.

The Sister of the Holy Family at the order’s motherhouse in New Orleans, ca. 1899. — Library of Congress photo

Ask people what a nun looks like and the picture that probably jumps to mind is a woman in a black habit — and it’s also likely that woman will be white. In part, that’s because black women seeking to enter holy orders in the United States have traditionally been discriminated against, either deliberately or unthinkingly, by the Catholic Church.

“Anyone invested in a full and honest accounting of the Catholic experience has an obligation to ensure that the lives and labors of black women religious are never erased, marginalized, or reduced to myth,” Shannen Dee Williams, assistant professor of U.S. and African-American history at the University of Tennessee, said in a statement on her forthcoming book, Subversive Habits: The Untold Story of Black Catholic Nuns in the United States.

Williams will be speaking on “The Untold Story of Black Catholic Nuns in the U.S.” at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids on Thursday night.

While some orders of nuns did allow black women to join, many either refused them or encouraged them to join orders founded by black nuns.

Two of the oldest orders in the U.S. were founded by black nuns. Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange established the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore in 1829, and the Sisters of the Holy Family was founded in New Orleans by Mother Henriette Delille in 1842. Both women are currently under consideration for canonization as saints.

In addition to serving their communities in traditional ways and following their own spiritual journeys, black nuns often pushed back at social and political injustice. The founding of the Sisters of the Holy Family was in its own way an act of protest — establishing a religious order for black women violated state law in Louisiana in the 1840s.

Nuns also had took stands against injustice within orders. As previously segregated orders began to accept black sisters following World War II, black nuns sometimes faced segregation within the order. And during the height of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s, many black sisters who participated in the movement faced disciplinary actions or were forced out of their orders.

Williams will explore this largely unknown history in her lecture that begins at 7 p.m. at Busse Center, Chapel of Mercy on Mount Mercy’s campus. Admission is free, but seating is limited.

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