The Catholic sisters who confronted their own legacy of racism

Mary Clare Fichtner, O.P., (far left) is joined by Springfield Dominican Anti-Racism Team members (left to right) Richard Bowen, Howard Derrick and Valeria Cueto. Photo courtesy of Springfield Dominicans.Mary Clare Fichtner, O.P., (far left) is joined by Springfield Dominican Anti-Racism Team members (left to right) Richard Bowen, Howard Derrick and Valeria Cueto. Photo courtesy of Springfield Dominicans.  

Mary Clare Fichtner, O.P., said she realized she was racist after becoming principal of a predominantly African-American school on the east side of Springfield, Ill., in 1990. It was a bit of a shock. “Everybody finds that out a little differently,” she said.

Reflecting on her ministry during a summer at Xavier University of Louisiana’s Institute for Black Catholic Studies, Sister Fichtner said she once had “a kind of colonial spirit in my heart,” a superiority complex that left her feeling “just so wonderful” because she was a white person helping black kids.

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She came back to the motherhouse wondering how she could get over such a feeling. “Just like any other sin you've got in your heart, you have to deal with how to get rid of it, how to change your basic philosophy of life,” she said. But the path to rooting out racial biases and paternalism seemed daunting to Sister Fichtner.

A priest encouraged her to talk with others, and when she did, she realized other sisters felt similarly.

“Right here in the community there were sisters who had begun to think the same thing, that their attitude toward people was not pure and wholesome but biased in many ways,” she said.

The Dominican sisters are motivated by a recognition that the blinding racism that allowed nuns to buy and sell human beings in the past could blind them to their own complicity in racist structure today.

These conversations eventually led each sister in the community to participate in antiracism training. Over the course of a few years, more conversations and training led to a decision by the community to engage in a more formal and institutional process with a long-term vision. In 2004 the community committed itself to be accountable to people of color and actively resist participation in systemic racism, defined as those tendencies, biases and practices of discrimination that are buried in the structures and connections that everyday lives are built upon.

“Everybody is infected with this disease,” Sister Fichtner said. “People are infected with it one way or the other; either they are oppressed or they are oppressive.

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“Just the fact that you recognize it is helpful,” she added. But what’s next? “First of all, you can apologize. Second of all, you can work at changing.”

In August, Rachel Swarns wrote in The New York Times about some Catholic sisters who were uncovering their institutional history of slaveholding and beginning a process of reparation.

“As they search their archives and reflect on the way forward, some religious women are developing frameworks that may serve as road maps for other institutions striving to acknowledge and atone for their participation in America’s system of human bondage,” Ms. Swarns wrote.

Shannen Dee Williams, a historian of black Catholic sisters, points out that many women’s orders have been grappling with racist legacies for years. The Dominican sisters of Springfield belong to one of those orders. While their efforts are not strictly historical and do not focus on slaveholding, they are motivated by a recognition that the blinding racism that allowed nuns to buy and sell human beings in the past could blind them to their own complicity in racist structure today.

In 2004 the community committed itself to be accountable to people of color and actively resist participation in systemic racism.

Joseph Brown, S.J., a professor of Africana studies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, said that the Springfield sisters’ work should be a model for religious communities nationwide looking to examine their relationship with racism.

The sisters see this work as a natural part of their religious life. But it has led to practical changes not only in their religious order but in the entire city of Springfield.

A Culture of Racism
Marcelline Koch, O.P., a member of the Dominican order in Springfield, described racism as a combination of the abuse of institutional power and personal race-based prejudice.

“Even if someone has worked to rid herself of personal prejudice against people of certain ethnic groups, she is still caught in the web of racism, which is supported by institutional structures that are designed to privilege the group with social power and disenfranchise those without it,” she wrote in an interview conducted over email.

“This country was founded on apartheid,” Sister Koch added. “All the institutions in this country were set up to deliberately benefit white people and deny people of color.”

The sisters believe the road toward healing remains long.

“Racism or anti-blackness is more than just the sum of individual actions by white people,” said Katie Grimes, a theology professor at Villanova University, adding that white Americans live in a collective space where, regardless of intention, they absorb biases or ideas of superiority.

That collective space is part of the afterlife of American slavery. The Rev. Bryan Massingale calls this “a culture of racism.” In his book Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, he writes, “Racism refers to the underlying ‘set of meanings and values attached to skin color, a way of interpreting skin color differences that pervades the collective convictions, conventions, and practices of America.’

“White denotes a frame of reference that is unquestioned.... [It] is ‘just the way things are,’” he writes. Whiteness, explains Father Massingale, is socially expressed as the assumed norm, the standard against which everything else should be measured.

“Even if someone has worked to rid herself of personal prejudice against people of certain ethnic groups, she is still caught in the web of racism.”

The Springfield Dominicans believe that an attitude of white superiority pervades the collective convictions, conventions and practices of social interaction in the United States, including their own religious order. They feel they contribute to the culture of racism if they do not actively interrupt it. So rather than work to dismantle racism elsewhere in the world, they have committed to examining it within themselves and their order.

Valeria Cueto, the director of diversity programs at one of the sisters’ high schools and a woman of color, said self-reflection is an important part of fighting racism.

“Well-intentioned white people will start from the premise: ‘I’m not a racist; I know there is racism around, so I want to help to end this racism.’ There is no recognition of this person’s own complicity in the system,” Ms. Cueto said.

But the sisters have “gotten really good at recognizing and bringing to mind their role in the perpetuation of systemic racism,” she said. “That is huge because systemic racism depends on this implicit bias that people don’t see. [Dismantling it] requires the development of this new way of seeing the world and yourself in it.”

Inviting Conversation, Interrupting the System
The sisters felt they needed help arriving at this new way of seeing the world, so they each attended about three days of training with Crossroads, a Chicago-based anti-racism group that provides training and consulting to institutions striving to dismantle racism. After the training, the order hired Crossroads to help them build an anti-racism team charged with creating a 30- to 50-year vision that will assess how the order is influenced by systemic racism and create a plan to interrupt it.

But the sisters knew that they could not do this work alone.

“There was no way we were just all gonna talk to each other and change,” said Sister Fichtner. “The things you say and the way you have of doing things need to be supervised [and] criticized by somebody else who has a level of comfort that can point out your problems to you.”

The sisters invited people of color from Springfield and from their sponsored ministries around the country to help them in the process. The result was the Springfield Dominican Anti-Racism Team, made up of 20 sisters and 20 laypeople of color. They meet quarterly for three days and review the order’s policies and procedures, trying to identify and interrupt racism that may be at work.

“Well-intentioned white people will start from the premise: ‘I’m not a racist; I know there is racism around, so I want to help to end this racism.’ There is no recognition of this person’s own complicity in the system.”

Robette Dias is the executive co-director of Crossroads and has worked with the sisters as a consultant since the beginning of S.D.A.R.T. She said their willingness to partner with people of color is a key component for success.

“That’s a big risk for a community of women to say, ‘We are going to give decision-making power to people outside of us,’” she said. But giving up some power, and intentionally examining how power affects both white people and people of color, is a framework that the sisters have tried to adopt.

Their work is intentionally pragmatic.

Leroy Jordan is a co-facilitator for S.D.A.R.T. and the coordinator of the black Catholic ministry program for the Diocese of Springfield. When the order began discussions about a new building to be located on the motherhouse property, he asked, “How are you going to do this differently, now that you are publicly committed to being anti-racist?”

The sisters responded by requiring building contractors to hire a diverse construction crew and to provide regular updates about that workforce, ensuring that opportunities for people of color will be included in the economic benefits that derive from the construction.

Learning to leverage their power and resources to help shift a system that systematically disadvantages people of color is another priority for the sisters. They now ask banks and other businesses for copies of their diversity policies, and the sisters use that information to decide where they will take their business. They also mandate attention to anti-racism at their sponsored ministries around the country, which have included primary and secondary schools, a hospital in Jackson, Miss., and literacy centers.

Getting practical
The Dominicans’ anti-racism team also encouraged an examination of the racial composition of the workforce at their own motherhouse. They realized that people of color were most often placed in service-level jobs while all department heads were white.

The sisters “are willing to be on the cross with Jesus. They are willing to die in order to be transformed and to transform the world. There are very few organizations that would take anything remotely close to a risk like that.”

This led the congregation to adopt new hiring practices. They still seek the most qualified candidates, but now the sisters are more intentional about how they find them. They have broadened where they advertise employment opportunities and defer employment decisions until they achieved a diverse pool of applicants.

The sisters’ anti-racism work was made possible only when they allocated serious time and resources to addressing the issue. Their persistence and dedication has encouraged others.

“The transformation in [the sisters] has made possible the work that is now happening in Springfield,” said Ms. Dias. The sisters inspired the creation of the Springfield Coalition on Dismantling Racism, now a citywide effort modeled after the sisters’ anti-racism team.

Ms. Dias said there is a difference between other groups she works with and the sisters, who she said are “so much less worried about self-preservation than they are about their charism and making an impact on the world.”

“They are willing to be on the cross with Jesus,” she said. “They are willing to die in order to be transformed and to transform the world. There are very few organizations that would take anything remotely close to a risk like that.”

Ms. Cueto said this is why, as a woman of color, working with the sisters is a valuable use of her time.

“It’s less burdensome to do this work with the sisters because they appreciate the life and death nature of the work in a way that other institutions don’t,” she said.

“They are real allies. I don’t think that you often find institutional leaders who are this dedicated to the work of dismantling systemic racism,” Ms. Cueto said.

Perhaps some good old-fashioned Catholic guilt has helped these white women religious recognize their role in the problem of racism in America. But acknowledging their complicity has not paralyzed them. The anti-racism page on their community’s website reads: “We hope that you’ll begin to understand why we easily admit to our racism.”

While organizations may be compelled to fight racism for a variety of reasons, the sisters’ commitment flows from their religious life. Racism is just like any other sin, Sister Fichtner said. Aware of God’s mercy yet committed to growth, they have found an intentional way of confronting it. Some of the sisters even find parallels between traditions of religious life and the anti-racism work.

“By the time I graduated from high school, I was pretty anti-Catholic and jaded about Christianity, in general,” she said. But her work with the sisters has helped her see another side of the faith. “My relationship with them has been very healing.”

S.D.A.R.T. meetings, for example, include a practice called caucusing, where people of color and white people share their experiences of racism. White people share times when they were conscious of an internalized superiority complex and people of color share experiences of internalized oppression.

“Back in the days of early religious life, we had what we called ‘chapter of faults.’ We had an experience of talking about people’s faults in a circle like that,” Sister Fichtner recalled, describing a practice once common in religious communities. Following the sharing, the members would ask forgiveness and then do penance.

Sister Fichtner said that their anti-racism work goes deeper and helps identify practical responses. “For the most part, the call to religious life, even if you’re called to the contemplative life, [is not only about] trying to get yourself holy. You’re there for the sake of everybody being holier.”

The way to such holiness, said Sister Fichtner, is trying to develop and help others develop “a real care and concern and love for other people, modeled on Jesus, of course.” She believes the anti-racism work aids her community in that pursuit.

“To have an action that really addresses that specifically, straightforwardly, is very powerful and very helpful,” she said. “It gives you a feeling that you’re living the religious life the way it’s meant to be lived.”

Changing the Narrative
Ida B. Wells, an African-American journalist in the late 19th century and a prominent anti-lynching activist, said, “Christianity is a test that whites failed miserably.”

In his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, the late African-American theologian James H. Cone wrote, “As a teenager in the South where whites treated blacks with contempt, I and other blacks knew that the Christian identity of whites was not a true expression of what it meant to follow Jesus.”

For centuries, many white Christians supported the institution of slavery, were complicit in the lynching of black people and supported legal discrimination of the Jim Crow South. Looking back, it should not be hard for contemporary white Christians to understand why abolitionists, anti-lynching activists and black theologians found “white Christianity” wanting.

As white women, the sisters’ decision to analyze their racism and ask for guidance and scrutiny from people of color charts a new narrative of white Christianity in America. Their work has not gone unnoticed by contemporary activists and organizers of color, who find it inspiring.

Ms. Dias said she held pretty negative views of Christianity before working with the sisters. As a Native American woman, she said, her outlook was influenced by the church’s role in colonization and the way Catholic missionaries had treated her own people.

“By the time I graduated from high school, I was pretty anti-Catholic and jaded about Christianity, in general,” she said. But her work with the sisters has helped her see another side of the faith. “My relationship with them has been very healing.”

Similarly, Ms. Cueto said that as a young woman of color, she can be discouraged by what she experiences as a “silence that is deafening” by the church on issues of racial justice.

“[But] working with [the sisters] has rekindled my faith,” she said.

Sister Koch said the work requires humility to move beyond defensiveness. To other Catholic leaders considering similar work, she advised, “Be willing to be in it for the long haul, partner with persons of color from the start, know that we are all learners in this work, and keep in mind, the enemy is racism, not each other.”

The sisters’ work is certainly about social justice, aimed at using their own resources to correct historical injustices that continue to harm people today. But it is also a work of evangelization that has helped others understand and appreciate what it means to be a Christian.

Searching for words to express her experience with the sisters, Ms. Cueto said: “I really feel blessed that my path crossed with theirs. If you’ve never read the Bible, being with these women is exposure to the Gospel.”

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