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Kevin SpinaleSeptember 16, 2022
Roneisha Simpson, a junior at Cardinal Ritter High School in St. Louis, speaks with Sister Mary Antona Ebo after the Franciscan Sister of Mary addressed students at the school Feb. 14, 2013. (CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review)

At its root, “apocalypse” means a dramatic and comprehensive uncovering, a revealing, a definitive unveiling. The ancient Greek word from which we get apocalypse, apokalupsis, appears as the first word of the book of Revelation: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him, to show his servants what must happen soon. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who gives witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ by reporting what he saw” (Rev 1:1-2).

Subversive Habitsby Shannen Dee Williams

Duke University Press
424p $29.95

In the letter to the Ephesians, apokalupsis is identified as a grace evoked by a relationship with Christ and the promises of baptism: “[May] the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation [apokalupsis] resulting in knowledge of him. May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe” (Ep 1:17-19a).

Shannen Dee Williams’s Subversive Habits uncovers a great deal of what was hidden and some of what has been erased concerning white supremacy in the church.

And then there are Jesus’ words of profound promise amid persecution—words that assure Christians of divine justice and a fuller revelation of God’s providence: “Therefore do not be afraid of them. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed [apokaluphthesetai], nor secret that will not be known. What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops” (Mt 10:26-27).

In the Christian scriptures, apocalypse denotes justice, reckoning and the fuller unveiling of God’s truth. Such apokalupsis is balm for those who hope, those who suffer injustice, those who are faithful in the way of Christ.

Shannen Dee Williams’s Subversive Habits is an apocalyptic history in exactly this scriptural sense.

The book uncovers—with authoritative, painstaking scholarship—a great deal of what was hidden and some of what has been erased concerning white supremacy in the Roman Catholic Church as it has existed in the church’s panoply of religious orders (female and male), its episcopacy and its apostolic works in the United States. Subversive Habits presents straightforwardly the lives of Black Catholic women religious from the early 19th century through to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Shannen Dee Williams: "From the earliest days of the United States, religious life was one of the fiercest strongholds of white supremacy and battlegrounds of the Black freedom struggle."

Williams’s apocalyptic toil is oriented toward making explicit (in all the “gut-wrenching” details of personal histories) the hatred directed toward Black Catholic nuns as they sought admission to religious life, as they served as teachers and administrators or as nurses and laborers supporting an apostolate, as they advocated and fought for civil rights for Black Americans, and as they tried—with evident devotion and resilience—to live lives of holiness as vowed religious women. Subversive Habits reveals American Catholicism in its holiness (embodied in men and women who work against injustice and ecclesial hypocrisy) as well as its malice, its callous dismissal of the education, evangelization and dignity of Black Catholics for—as Williams tallies it—438 years. These are heavy historical claims, and they assail yet another vile and pernicious aspect of the history of the church in the United States.

At the same time, the portraits contained in this apocalyptic history are incredibly uplifting. The lives of these Black women religious testify to faith. At the heart of this history are women of formidable holiness: Sister Mary Aloysius Becraft, Sister Mary Ursula Wallace, Mother Mary Rosina Wightman, Mother Mathilda Beasley, Sister Mary Esperance Collins, Sister Mary of Good Counsel Baptiste, Sister Mary Consolata Gibson, Sister Ann Benedict Moore and Sister Mary Antona Ebo. These Black women—and there are dozens more depicted in Subversive Habits—represent over two centuries of perseverance and hope, faith and strength, activism and service to the church, particularly in ministry to Black Catholics.

To introduce Williams’s work for the Catholic Book Club at America, I chose to point out one passage that summarizes many of Williams’s claims, describe two pivotal moments of apokalupsis in the text and relay one portrait of a sister that helps ground this apokalupsis. The set of claims below summarizes what Williams’s research has unveiled:

From the earliest days of the United States, religious life was one of the fiercest strongholds of white supremacy and battlegrounds of the Black freedom struggle. As such, embracing the celibate religious state in the Catholic Church was always a spiritual and political act for anyone who did it. Through their existence, African American sisters upended the ideological foundation of white Christian supremacy: that Blackness was inherently evil, bad, sexually deviant. They also embodied and taught the fundamental truth that Black history is and always has been Catholic history. This reality explains the great opposition that Black women and girls called to religious life have faced in their vocations and ministries over time…It also illuminates why African American sisterhoods and select Black members of white congregations—unlike most of their white counterparts—continue to wear the veil despite Vatican II reforms. “We fought so hard to have them [habits],” one Oblate Sister of Providence remarked in 2010. “We will never give them up.”

Williams documents several instances of white, female religious orders trying to prohibit Black nuns, particularly members of Black-founded orders—from wearing a veil that resembled the habit of their own vowed members. Thus, wearing a veil—a marker of a commitment to holiness—was, and still is, a subversive act. It may cover a Black woman’s hair—and predominantly white orders allowed their Black sisters no accommodations for their differing hair care—but the veil does not conceal a Black woman’s face. Many white Catholics could not countenance the two together: “Confused or repulsed by the sight of a Black woman in a religious habit, white adults and children often taunted and verbally assaulted Black sisters,” Williams writes. And so, Williams’s history is filled with Black women religious photographed in their habits. Their habits, varied as they are, all point to the coming of God’s Kingdom as well as a commitment, on the part of Black nuns, to the promise of a fuller revelation of God’s truth and God’s justice in the world.

“Confused or repulsed by the sight of a Black woman in a religious habit, white adults and children often taunted and verbally assaulted Black sisters,” Williams writes.

A pivotal moment

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Many of the sisters Williams depicts had revelatory experiences in the wake of this moment that make it an apocalyptic instance, a moment of profound insight on the part of Black sisters. One nun in particular, Sister M. Melanie Willingham of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in Ohio, had an insight into herself and her order:

The march on Washington had fired me up, the bombing of [four] girls in Birmingham had enraged me, the assassination of Malcom X had embittered me. None of these events seemed to capture more than the casual attention of my community…I eventually had to ask myself how I could justify such total identification with this institution that was not only white, but so racist and authoritarian that it cannot accept the factual reality that its schools were segregated; so racist that it cannot comprehend the message the d[ea]rth of black ‘vocations’ is testifying [sic]; so racist it that it does not even know the meaning of the word paternalism and is far indeed from seeing itself implicated therein.

Williams documents many instances of spontaneous cruelty and racism in the aftermath of King’s death—around televisions in community common rooms or even in classrooms during the school day—which further isolated Black nuns in their congregations. Many left religious life. They could not take it anymore—such cruelty and racism was compromising their health in critical ways. MLK’s murder was a moment of profound revelation for them.

"One sister stated, 'I never knew there were so many Black Sisters in this country.' Some had even believed they were the only Black sister in the country."

Another moment, only a few months later

Over the course of the volatile spring and summer of 1968, Sister M. Martin de Porres Grey had planned tirelessly, written 633 letters and petitioned countless women’s superiors to send their Black members to a conference in Pittsburgh that she was to call the National Black Sisters’ Conference. On Aug. 17, 1968, 155 sisters gathered to participate in the inaugural NBSC.The moment was utterly exhilarating for the sister-delegates:

One sister stated, “I never knew there were so many Black Sisters in this country.” Some had even believed they were the only Black sister in the country. Eight Black sister-delegates from the Chicago area learned of each other’s existence only through their participation in the first NBSC…Such reactions underscored the profound isolation in which many Black sisters in white congregations lived and reinforced the importance of Black sisters having a space of their own to think, share, and organize at such a critical moment in the nation’s history.

Grey’s efforts revealed the isolation so many Black sisters who were members of predominantly white congregations felt—not only in the immediate aftermath of King’s assassination but as they had lived their vows for decades. The first NBSC initiated a corporate commitment on the part of the sister-delegates to fight racism within structures of the Catholic Church and to work, in a more public way, for civil rights in the larger secular society. Most significantly, the NBSC infused its participants with pride: pride in their shared identity, pride in their own contributions as Black women to the Catholic Church, and pride in their commitment to faith and reform oriented to justice.

Williams documents several instances of white, female religious orders trying to prohibit Black nuns from wearing a veil that resembled the habit of their own vowed members.

A portrait: Sister Mary Antona Ebo, S.S.M.

The trajectory of Sister Ebo’s life—from her conversion to Catholicism in 1942 at the age of 18, through her experiences of desegregating her Catholic high school, being rejected admission to Catholic nursing schools in Illinois because of her race, entering the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, her segregated vow ceremony, being a witness for justice at Selma, Ala. in March 1965, to her death just a few years after her public protest in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson—is perhaps best told in pictures.

Sister Ebo’s face appears on the front cover of this apokalupsis—the first subversively habited nun the reader encounters. She is depicted in mid-sentence, addressing the crowd in Selma. Of this moment, Williams writes, “Though the sight of a Black nun caused shock among the protesters gathered at Brown African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Chapel Church, and though members of Selma’s white segregationist establishment believed Ebo was a random Black woman pretending to be a nun to inspire the marchers, all recognized the symbolic power that a Black Catholic nun could bring to the secular freedom movement.” The first picture embedded in the text of Williams’s introduction is of Sister Ebo in full habit, marching at Selma. The next picture is of Sister Mary Antona Ebo processing into her segregated vow ceremony in St. Louis in 1947.

Sister Ebo is next depicted in the large gathering of the first NBSC. Last, she is depicted at her wake in the conclusion of Williams’s history. It is a poignant photo of her in death. The Rev. Art Cavitt is kissing her forehead in farewell while she lies in an open casket. She has her glasses on, and the viewer sees only the top of her bare, un-habited head. Her hair is short, salt and pepper tending to white. It is short. She is in repose—the woman who became the first black sister to head a hospital in the United States, the woman who marched at Selma and fought so hard for the full inclusion of Black Americans in civil and ecclesial life.

In that last photograph of her, Sister Mary Antona Ebo’s human frailty and strength, the course of her struggle written in her body, lies uncovered for us as readers to acknowledge and take heart in. Her faith and witness to justice is revelatory of God’s fuller truth and the American Catholic Church’s own need for ongoing conversion from racism.

Subversive Habits demands a committed reader. However, it will reward the resilient and open-minded reader with apokalupsis—tremendous learning about the scope of racism throughout the American Catholic Church as well as the witness of these Black Catholic women and their contributions to the church and the world. Please take up the reading and stick with it. Draw some perseverance from the women the book depicts and take heart in their commitment to justice.

Questions for discussion

As for the beginning of an online discussion, here are three short prompts.

-First, tell of a moment of revelation, recognition and learning in your encounter with Shannen Dee Williams’s work.
-Second, how does this book—or—how should this book influence the Catholic Church and its apostolates now and into the future?
-Third, how should the lives and witness of Sister Mary Antona Ebo, Sister Thea Bowman and Dr. Patricia Grey influence our church today?

[Interested in discussing Subversive Habits with other America readers? Join the Catholic Book Club discussion group here.]

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