"The Problem of Accepting Colored Girls as Postulants”: White Catholic Sisterhoods and the Limits of Racial Charity in Post-World War II Chicago

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:40 AM
Wilson Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Shannen Dee Williams, Villanova University
Before World War II, most black women and girls seeking admission into the nation’s historically white Catholic sisterhoods were rejected on the basis of race. While many white sisters and priests working in black communities directed these candidates to the nation’s black sisterhoods, the vocations of hundreds of black women and girls fell through cracks. After 1945, the global defeat of Nazism, expanding sister shortages, changing racial attitudes, and an ever-increasing number of black applications to white orders forced many white sisterhoods to rethink their longstanding anti-black admissions policies. Although most white orders remained staunchly opposed to the integration of their ranks through the 1980s, several opened their doors to black candidates with mixed results.

This paper will examine the fight to desegregate white sisterhoods in the Chicago archdiocese. Between 1940 and 1970, the numbers of white sisters teaching African-American youth in Chicago dramatically increased as a result of the Great Migration. As a consequence, the number of requests from African-American women and girls seeking to enter white sisterhoods in Chicago skyrocketed. In the case of the Religious Sisters of Mercy, one of the largest white sisterhoods working in the African-American community, archival records and oral history indicate that the order never accepted a black candidate from Chicago despite receiving scores of informal and formal requests from white priests and African-American candidates under their spiritual direction. Initially, black women and girls were regularly forced to leave the state to enter white orders. Moreover, most pioneering black sisters in white Chicago congregations did not remain in their orders. This paper will explore on the extraordinary lengths that white general councils and superiors went to keep black women and girls out of their ranks as well as the diverse strategies employed by white priests and African-American candidates to break down these barriers.