Women Who Changed the Church Lecture: MBIT’s Annual Mary Ward Lecture

Thursday 10 March 2022

In our annual Mary Ward Lecture, Dr Williams discusses the experience of black Catholic nuns in the long African American freedom struggle

 

Dr Shannen Dee Williams discusses the history of Black Catholic nuns in the United States, hailing them as the “forgotten prophets” of Catholicism and democracy. Drawing on oral histories and previously sealed church records, Williams demonstrates how master narratives of women’s religious life and Catholic commitments to racial and gender justice fundamentally change when the lives and experiences of African American nuns are taken seriously. For Black Catholic women and girls, embracing the celibate religious state constituted a radical act of resistance to white supremacy and the sexual terrorism built into chattel slavery and segregation. Williams shows how Black sisters—such as Sister Mary Antona Ebo, who was the only Black member of the inaugural delegation of Catholic sisters to travel to Selma, Alabama, and join the Black voting rights marches of 1965—were pioneering religious leaders, educators, healthcare professionals, desegregation foot soldiers, Black power activists, and womanist theologians. In the process, Williams calls attention to Catholic women’s religious life as a stronghold of white supremacy and racial segregation—and thus an important battleground in the long African American freedom struggle.

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