Rich heritage: Black sisters, priests mark 50 years of shaping church

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy the Josephites

By Dennis Sadowski

(CNS) — Fifty years ago, Josephite
Father William Norvel thought it was time for black priests to come together.

The year,
1968, was a tumultuous one in American history. The country was struggling to
implement civil rights for blacks, protests of the Vietnam War became common
and some were violent, and young people rejected the authority of their
parents’ generation.

The black priests
wanted to support each other. They also wanted to discuss how to respond to the
times and gain the church backing to better evangelize black communities.

importantly, they wanted to confront the racism they were experiencing within
the church. The priests wanted to feel accepted for who they were: African-American clergy who could share a rich cultural heritage but were feeling suppressed
by white-dominated church leadership.

Norvel and dozens of black priests met in Detroit in April in the first meeting
of the National Black Catholic
Clergy Caucus. The meeting came soon after the Rev. Martin Luther King
Jr. was assassinated. Questions abounded in the minds of the priests.

felt at that time we needed to bring to the attention of the church the racism
experienced in our seminaries and in our church,” said Father Norvel, now
82 and retired in Atlanta, recalling that first gathering.

The priests
returned to their parishes resolved to “have the church do something about”
racism, he said.

Mercy Sister Martin de Porres Grey
was the only woman religious to attend. She has since left religious life. The
organization’s history records that she was so inspired by the gathering that
she organized a similar meeting of black sisters in August later that year in
Pittsburgh. About 150 women attended, marking the founding of the National Black Sisters’ Conference.

sisters, too, wanted to support each other and address racism within the
institutional church as well as in their own congregations, recalled Sister Josita Colbert, 80, a member
of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in Baltimore who attended the gathering.
Today she serves as the congregation’s vocation director.

Sister Colbert
said she came away inspired from the first meeting and continues to attend the
annual gathering, which includes the priests’ caucus, the National Black Catholic Seminarians
Association and the National
Association of Black Catholic Deacons.

was amazing and overwhelming at the beginning,” she told Catholic News Service. “We had
speakers who challenged us in terms of what was going on in the world (then)
and here in the United States as black people and what we as black religious
women were going to do about it.”

priests’ and sisters’ organizations have had a vibrant history and will
celebrate their 1968 founding July 28-Aug. 2 in New Orleans. The seminarians
and deacons will be there, too.

Father Kenneth Taylor, who
pastors two parishes in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and is president of the National Black Catholic
Clergy Caucus,
told CNS this year’s gathering will be a time of celebration for all four

The joint
meeting also will be one to reflect on the role of African-Americans within the
church, “especially during a time when we seem to have lost the interest
of the church leaders because of the strong Hispanic immigration into the
country,” Father Taylor said.

organizations do not want to create a rift with Hispanic Catholics, but rather
want to make sure diocesan bishops do not shrink African-American outreach while
expanding Hispanic ministries, he said.

gives us an opportunity to come together in mutual support and
encouragement,” Father Taylor explained. “It also gives us a chance
to come together to talk about the needs of the black community and what we can
do to help black Catholics become more engaged in the church.”

A deep
concern for racism underlies the organizations today. Some clergy and women
religious were outspoken about the racism they saw in the 1960s. Their strident
stances in those early years often alienated diocesan or congregational

the stridency may have been dialed back a bit today, their views have not
faded. Black priests and women religious continue to say they want the church
to confront racism so that all the faithful can achieve true equality.

Father David Benz, 75, who
was ordained to the priesthood in 1975 in the Archdiocese of New York and now
is retired, said at times he feels African-Americans in the church almost
appear “invisible.”

belong to the same church. I know what the social teachings of the church are
and we as a church see this and ignore that,” he told CNS.

Taylor credited the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for creating its Ad Hoc
Committee Against Racism, which is finalizing a pastoral letter on racism
across American society as well as the church. A vote on the document is
planned for the bishops’ general assembly in November.

black women religious and priests expressed concern that African-American evangelization
is being overlooked again within the church. They voiced concern that diocesan
reorganizations and parish and school closings have disproportionately affected
African-American communities.

leaves the impression that the Catholic Church is pulling out of the black community,”
Father Taylor said.

Just as worrisome
is the rise in white supremacy, overt racist comments in the media and in
politics, and emerging policies that harm minority communities. The priests and
women religious said they believe the church must become more vocal in offering
the moral guidance necessary to change people’s hearts.

Sister Roberta Fulton, a member of
the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur and president of the National Black Sisters’ Conference, credited congregations
of women religious for addressing racism within their structures. She and
others called for stronger efforts to promote religious vocations among African
Americans as key to addressing their concerns.

are not entering religious life like they used to, so we’re looking at other
ways for your people to understand the call,” Sister Fulton said. One
option is to encourage young people to become associates of a congregation.
“Those associates, some have become sisters. They learn some things about
the sisters and what we do, where we minister.”

Precious Blood Father Clarence Williams, senior
parochial vicar at St. Joan of Arc Parish in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, in the
Cleveland Diocese, was among the organizers of the black seminarians’
organization soon after the priests’ caucus formed. He said that the early
annual joint gatherings of the associations helped encourage participants to
recommit to their ministry.

yearly with the religious women and priests and really reflecting on our
reality in our communities, within our diocese, within assignment, we found our
wisdom in that community to stay (in ministry),” Father Williams said. “Those
without the support didn’t make it. It became to discouraging. It became too
hostile,” he said.

For women
religious, the annual gathering was just as inspiring.

black sisters conference was wonderful because it brought us all
together,” recalled Sister
Juanita Shealey, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph in Cleveland.
“We sang, we danced, we prayed, we talked about how wonderful it was to see
other black sisters.

Members of
both organizations also lamented the overall declining number of vocations to
the priesthood and religious life, especially among African-Americans. With
fewer vocations, it also means fewer opportunities for African-Americans to
assume leadership positions in the church.

the years we have made recommendations to get priests named (bishops). … But
it seems as if the church is much more concerned about the Hispanic community
than they are about the black community,” Father Benz said.

Having more
African-Americans in leadership, especially as bishops, would help with
evangelization, Father Benz added.

The New
Orleans gathering will give participants a chance to reflect on such questions.
Attendees also will honor past and present leaders, those whom Father Taylor
called “exemplars.”

He said
rather than honor one person with an award, 50 exemplars have been identified
and will be identified at the gathering.

The honor will
serve to show not just where the organizations have been, but, Father Taylor
said, to but hopefully will inspire members to carry on their legacy to achieve
full acceptance in church and society.

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Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski

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