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Strong, faith-filled black women enrich U.S. Catholic church


When thinking of the history of African-Americans in the United States, all too often the voices of women and the significant contributions they have made to the black community and the United States as a whole is overlooked. Yet where would we be without them?

An old saying states: “If it wasn’t for the women,” then this, that or the other thing would never have been accomplished. Where would the Christian churches be without women who make up over 75 percent of their numbers? Where would, certainly, the black family be without the women, mothers, aunts, grandmothers and “play” mothers? They not only gave birth to the future but then worked to ensure that that future would come into being. Somehow, they knew what we ourselves often did not know that we needed, and laid the path for us to journey forward.

Black women have been called the “bearers of culture” because they are the ones who retained and passed on what has to be remembered and learned by the next generation: the names of the ancestors, the stories of family and community and “how we got over,” the songs that helped teach us our faith in a “wonder-working God,” the prayers and how to pray them, and so much more.

In the black Catholic community, women have been a source of strength and healing, encouraging their sons and daughters in their callings, and trying to make the way just a bit easier than it may have been for them. They forged paths for all of us to follow even when they were not always sure where those paths would lead other than they would lead to God in the end.

There are so many names to call forth, it would be impossible to do them all justice, but I will call forth a few of the ancestors, our black saints.

We know little of the lives of Catholic slaves, but a few names have emerged. One such is Coincoin or Marie Therese. She, like so many others, was a faith-filled woman who, despite the hardships and degradations of slavery, was able to raise their children and build thriving black communities. Coincoin was the name given her by her African-born parents. She was born in slavery in Louisiana, in the Cane River country. Rented out as a young girl, she became the house servant of a French merchant by whom she eventually had 10 children. Slave women had little choice over either becoming mothers or who the fathers of their children would be. Yet they loved their children fiercely.

At the age of 44, Marie Therese was freed by her owner, along with her youngest child, and given land and a small annuity, something unusual in those times. She proceeded to expand her holdings until she had a thriving plantation. With the monies she earned, she then proceeded to travel throughout the area, seeking out and purchasing not only all of her children except for one daughter, but all of her grandchildren as well and brought them to live with her. She established the first black Catholic parish -- named after her son and the doctor of the church, St. Augustine -- to have a mission to whites in the United States.

Coincoin was obviously a woman of great courage and perseverance, but she was not alone. Other strong, faith-filled women followed. Many of us are familiar with the stories behind the founding of the first black Catholic female religious orders, in 1829 and 1851. They were founded by far-seeing, energetic women who refused to accept the limitations and stereotypes placed on them by U.S. society.

Where many of their fellow Catholics believed it impossible for a black woman to live a moral and chaste life, Mother Elizabeth Lange of the Oblates of Providence and Mother Henriette DeLille of the Sisters of the Holy Family knew there were many devout black Catholic women seeking lives of prayer and obedience to God. Their orders were some of the first to provide viable educational opportunities for black Americans, slave and free, Protestant and Catholic, young and old. Their sisters today continue to teach, preach and pray wherever they are stationed, bringing hope and opportunity to many.

Others, lay women married and single, sought other avenues in which to live and work while still refusing to hide their deep and abiding faith in a God who was capable of “making a way out of no way” for all who believed. Black women supported their husbands, brothers and sons in founding the Knights of St. Peter Claver and the Knights of St. John when the Knights of Columbus refused them. Today, the Ladies Auxiliaries of these organizations are training grounds for young black women in leadership both in the church and the larger society.

Black women today are teachers, preachers, mothers, businesswomen, diocesan officers, aunts, doctors, lawyers and so much more. In keeping with those who came before them, they recognize that no task is too difficult if it means a child will be properly fed, clothed and educated.

They are coming together following meetings of the National Black Catholic Congresses and the first National Gathering of Black Catholic Women. They are proclaiming their pride in both their faith and in their race, while acknowledging that much must still be done to overcome the racism, sexism and classism still prevalent in both church and society. They acknowledge those who came before and laid the path for them.They call upon their strength to sustain them as they struggle against the discrimination and prejudice still too often existent in today’s world. The names are many: Anne Marie Becroft, Mathilda Beasley, Dr. Lena Edwards, Ella Terry, Emma Lewis, Constance Daniels, Sr. Delores Harrel, Sr. Thea Bowman, Sr. Maxine Townes, and so many others whose names must be kept alive in our hearts and souls.

Black Catholic women are still active in the Lord’s vineyard, preparing the soil, planting the seeds and participating in the harvest. Many are now achieving their doctorates while others have no letters after their names. No matter, for they all share in the struggle equally. For the way is still uphill and the stairs are strewn with tacks, but they keep climbing upward while praising the God they serve. The black community exists and persists because of them, a long line of strong, proud, faith-filled black women, our mothers and grandmothers, our foremothers, our “sheroes.” I feel blessed to be a part of that long line.

Diana L. Hayes is associate professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003