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Issue 11 – Trinity 2022


Handmaids of Mary

On nuns and education.


In November 1889, Daniel Arthur Rudd, editor and chief proprietor of the American Catholic Tribune, the nation’s first newspaper produced for and by Black Catholics, made it plain: the way for white Catholics to “bring the Negro” into the Church was to first pray and then support existing Black Catholic institutions, especially ­those led by Black nuns and laywomen. “Build up to respectable proportions the convents of the Oblate Sisters at Baltimore, St. Louis, and Leavenworth,” Rudd wrote. “Rebuild the Convent of the ­Sisters of the Holy ­Family at New Orleans. Wherever ­there is a Negro school where secular teachers are employed let the teachers be of the race.” At a moment when white Church leaders, especially the Josephites, and ­others ­were conspiring to push Black ­sisters and Black laywomen out of their pioneering ministries and actively suppressing Black vocations to religious life, Rudd’s championing of Black women’s educational leadership—­seen as essential to developing and nurturing ­future “race leaders”—­was an impor­tant intervention. Not only did Rudd, a former slave of the Jesuits in Bardstown, Kentucky, who was fluent in both En­glish and German, declare Black ­women key to the Black Catholic community’s growth, but he also refuted the insidious white Catholic refrain that Black ­people did not want ­sisters of their own race to minister to them. 

Ea­rlier that year, Rudd had or­ga­nized the first meeting of the Colored Catholic Congress to create a national network of Black Catholic leaders to chart their community’s ­future, fight back against Jim Crow segregation, and defend what he believed to be the Church’s ­great potential to attract more African Americans. Among the delegates to the first congress w­ere ­Father Augustus Tolton, the nation’s first self-­identified Black priest, and James Alexander Spencer, a Black educational leader and state legislator from Charleston, South Carolina. Over the next five years, men and w­omen delegates to the Colored Catholic Congresses repeatedly called on Black Catholics and the Church to take the lead in opposing white supremacy and the descending shadow of Jim Crow segregation in the nation. “The Catholic Church alone can break the color line,” Rudd declared in 1891. “Our ­people should help her to do it.” The meeting participants also called on the all-­white hierarchy to eliminate racial barriers in the Church or at least commit equitable resources to its Black constituencies, especially in education. From their collective perspective, the survival and growth of the Black Catholic community hinged on preserving and expanding the Black Catholic educational system, which required supporting Black ­sisters and laywomen in their ministries.

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About the author

Shannen Dee Williams