From Enslaved Woman to Member of a White Religious Community: Liza Nebbit, Racial Catholicism, and Afro-Catholicism in Louisiana

Thursday, January 6, 2022: 2:10 PM
Grand Ballroom E (Sheraton New Orleans)
Gabrielle Guillerm, Northwestern University
This paper focuses on the story of Liza Nebbit in order to examine the complex relationship between slavery, race, and Catholicism in the 19th century. Nebbit was a woman of African descent born into slavery in the 1810s. In antebellum Missouri and Louisiana, she was enslaved first by a French Catholic bishop and then French nuns, the Religious of the Sacred Heart, who stole her labor to build the Catholic Church. In 1865, she became free. Either as an enslaved or a free woman, Nebbit asked to join the Society of the Sacred Heart in Louisiana, a request that her (former?) enslavers accepted. While her obituary in the community’s records shows that the white nuns admired Nebbit’s piety, they only accepted her as a sort of affiliate, whose rank in the community was even lower to that of little educated white sisters (lay sisters). The nuns also kept Nebbit’s status secret from the public and never let her live with them in the convent.

While many gaps remain about Nebbit’s story, her life is unusually well documented for an illiterate woman who lived most of her life in bondage. It helps illuminate how Catholic expansion and the institutionalization of the Catholic Church up to 1865 was rooted in racial slavery and how the Catholic Church remained a racist institution after Emancipation. Yet, at the same time, Nebbit’s religious experience reminds us that Afro-Catholicism was not necessarily synonymous with loss and mere surrender.

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