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She‘s Fordham’s black nun who knows show business

Bronx, N.Y.

Sixty-some years ago Francesca Thompson’s papa taught her that if some people might think her inferior, it was only a manifestation of their ignorance. The Franciscan sister, now 70, never forgot his words.

Although she’s heard horror stories from other black nuns about racism and about harassment inside religious orders, the story of discrimination has not been her story.

When she entered the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg, Ind., 50 years ago, “I honestly thought that the sisters of my community sat up all night clapping their hands when they heard I was joining them.”

During an interview at Fordham University here, she recalled her young self as being, “so vain and arrogant, it was nearly impossible for my novice mistress to smack some humility into me.” Thompson directs the Office for Minority Affairs at Fordham.

Few other nuns can brag about being a longtime member of Broadway’s prestigious Tony Board, of having been drama coach to actresses Gilda Radner and Christine Lahti, or of being a personal friend to the Rev. Jesse Jackson. And brag she does.

Theater in her blood

Her actor parents, Edward Thompson and Evelyn Preer, were so fair that white producers made them wear blackface when they acted. The pair met while working with the Lafayette Players, the longest-running stock company in U.S. theater history (1915-32). Based in Harlem’s Lafayette Theater, the 250-member troupe toured in five companies.

Her mother was in Los Angeles when she gave birth to her only daughter on April 29, 1932. She died seven months later at 35. Thompson grew up in Indianapolis, raised by her father and grandmother, Susan Knox. Her lower middle-class home was far from ordinary, however.

Actor/singer/activist Paul Robeson, actress Ruby Dee and musician Eubie Blake, all friends of her father, visited. So did city politicians, clergymen, judges -- even Indiana’s gubernatorial candidates came to consult with her grandma, a Democratic ward captain.

“I wake up on election morning and feel joy and excitement the way other nuns feel on Christmas and Easter,” Thompson said. “I’m no Dan Berrigan, but religious life doesn’t demand I give up my political stands.”

Her gravest sin, she confessed, had been voting for Republican Dwight Eisenhower in the presidential race of 1956. “because Democrat Adlai Stevenson was divorced.” The worst part was having her grandmother find out. “It never happened again.”

She recalled taking her grandma to vote for Jimmy Carter when she was nearly 100. It was Susan Knox’s last outing.

At the time Thompson had already been a Franciscan 25 years and was teaching theater arts and English at the order’s Marian College in Indianapolis. She arrived at Marian in 1966, where she taught -- with a break to earn her doctorate -- until 1982, when she came to Fordham.

The history of the Lafayette Players was the subject of her doctoral dissertation in speech and drama at the University of Michigan, where she coached Radner, Lahti and several other budding actors. When it was suggested in 1969 that she research her parents’ theatrical troupe, Thompson had no idea how she would uncover material or even learn if any of the players were still alive.

But she did “what nuns are good at,” she said, and sent 97 begging letters to editors of black newspapers asking them to publish a free ad requesting information, clippings and old playbills about the troupe. She promised the editors “black power in heaven.” The ads netted contact with three company members, including the founder.

Thompson’s doctorate helped her become chairperson of Marian College’s drama/speech department. Thompson taught about life, morality and value in works by American and international playwrights, white and black poets and novelists. The nun’s study of many of the works of Eugene O’Neill delves into the dramatist’s tempestuous relationship with Catholicism.

Her own attraction to Catholicism began while attending St. Mary’s Academy, the only private secondary school in Indianapolis that would accept blacks in the 1940s. Raised in the African Episcopal church, Thompson joined the Catholic church in high school. It was not only love of the Franciscans who taught her, but also fascination with the drama of Catholic ritual and worship that led her to join the order in 1952.

Jesus must have been part actor, she said, musing over his theatrical backdrops -- the sermon preached against a mountain setting, a wedding the scene of his first miracle, walking on water, and his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Blacks bring a “unique contribution” to Catholicism, the nun said. Thompson’s recent jubilee service -- marking 50 years as a Franciscan -- featured spirituals, dance and preaching by a black Baptist pastor. Among the guests at the Fordham liturgy were Protestant ministers who were Martin Luther King Fellows in the Black Church Studies program at Colgate Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y. She has been associated with the program for more than 25 years and served as a dissertation reader for the 19 Protestant ministers who earned their doctorates in the program.

Preaching style

The nun has brought her own dramatic preaching style to many of their churches.

The “revolution” that Thompson has often called for and preached in the black community, she now wants to happen in the church. In her vocabulary, revolution does not mean overthrow or militancy, but rather “a systemic change.” Unless change occurs in the Catholic church, “we will remain firmly rooted in the 11th and 12th centuries,” she said.

She said she is appalled by stories of sex abuse by priests -- whether against nuns in Africa and elsewhere or against children, teens and adults in this country. “Why didn’t the bishops act against it years ago? Why don’t they just say they were wrong?”

Although she’s heard many accounts of discrimination from black nuns, she said no black sister has ever told her of sexual abuse, though some have complained of sexual harassment on the part of white clergy.

Thompson is confident the church will reform itself in the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandal, just as saints Benedict, Dominic, Francis, Ignatius and Vincent de Paul appeared and changed the church because their times demanded it. The church of the 21st century must ask itself whether it has fulfilled the gospel call, she said. “Are we giving abundant life to AIDS sufferers, abused women, the starving and hungry?”

It is the duty of universities such as Fordham to raise these questions and to create a counterculture in which solutions can emerge, she said. “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes the entire university to change the system,” she said.

The nun regrets that so many black and white students are “apathetic” and unaware of the struggles for justice waged by previous generations.

Spend a few hours with Thompson and you’ll watch a grande dame-impresario in motion -- fielding phone interviews, giving instructions to a trainee assistant, identifying celebrity photos across her office. The visitor will also hear her refer to herself as “the black nun” several times as if she’s watching her own performance.

“That’s the black nun who goes to every show,” Thompson overheard actress Lorna Luft say, pointing to the nun in a Broadway restaurant. She’s missed only two shows in four years on the Tony Board and has now been reappointed for another three years.

“But where are the black productions?” she wants to know, pointing to plenty of top black talent.

Three Oscars

Now that Hollywood has given three best-acting Oscars to black performers, Thompson said, “the doors have been opened. The question remains: Will blacks walk through them?”

She said she holds little respect for Hollywood’s “highly political” awards system. Denzel Washington ought to have been honored for his earlier role in “Hurricane,” she said, but the film was hurt by criticisms of the inaccuracies in the fact-based story of boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter. “What about ‘A Beautiful Mind’?” Thompson asked, pointing to a film script that “differs greatly” from the biography of its main character, mathematician John Nash. The film won Best Picture in March, but Russell Crowe as Nash lost the Best Actor honor to Washington for “Training Day.”

Thompson said actress Halle Berry deserved the Best Actress Oscar this spring for her role in “Monster’s Ball.” “She does not come to filming with everything the great actors have, but she’s stretching every time she acts.”

When it comes to Sidney Poitier, who won the Best Actor award for “Lilies of the Field” in 1963, “I suffer from extreme bias,” Thompson admitted. “He is a silver-tongued orator who could read the phone directory and it would sound better than any of Lawrence Olivier’s Shakespearian performances.”

Thompson once met Poitier and complimented him on his performance in “Lilies of the Field.” He asked her: “Sister, did anyone ever tell you that you have a smile that lights up a room?” Thompson experienced heart palpitations and was not herself -- was tongue-tied -- for hours.

But anyone can see that there is something in Thompson’s smile, her laugh, her talk, even her frenetic activity that mirrors her joy. The best umbrella in adverse times is a sense of humor, she said. Her attraction to the Franciscans grew from reading about Francis’ sense of joy. “Francis had a terrible life, suffered great fits of depression, but he stayed joy-filled,” she said.

In the classroom Thompson has tried to equip her students with a sense of morality and a feeling for joy. “Joy is a gift of the spirit,” she said. “You’ve got to have an inner relationship with the source of all joy, who I see as God.”

Patricia Lefevere is an NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002