Scandal, Schism, and Enslavement: Women Religious Negotiating Race, Gender, and Authority in 19th-Century American Catholicism

AHA Session 10
American Catholic Historical Association 2
Thursday, January 6, 2022: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Grand Ballroom E (Sheraton New Orleans, 5th Floor)
Cassandra Yacovazzi, University of South Florida
Cassandra Yacovazzi, University of South Florida

Session Abstract

This panel will examine different circumstances in which women religious confronted questions of race, gender, and authority in 19th century American Catholicism. The first presentation will analyze how the Catholic clergy in Baltimore and the members of the Order of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the District of Columbia worked to contain the public scandal resulting from the flight of Sister Ann Gertrude Wightt from Georgetown Convent in 1831. Because Wightt was the Directress of Georgetown Academy and Assistant Superior of the Convent, the ensuing scandal threatened the reputations of the Convent, its Academy, and the Catholic Church, respectively. Only a few years later, tales of alleged “escaped nuns” like Rebecca Reed and Maria Monk would contribute to reviving anti-Catholic nativism. In the case of Sister Gertrude, however, Catholic leadership successfully defused the situation and limited the damage to all involved. Sister Gertrude’s example as America’s first “runaway nun” remains all but unknown today, but her case set precedents regarding vowed religious life in the United States.

The second presentation will focus on the intersection of race, gender, and authority evident in the split within the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1857-58. The order was founded in Detroit 1845 by Mother Theresa Duchemin, a woman of mixed-race background, who had formerly been a member of the Oblates Sisters of Providence, a congregation of religious African American women. Key to understanding this division was the rise of the local diocesan bishops, who were working to consolidate their control over the women’s religious communities within their own domains. This presentation untangles the interwoven themes of race, gender, and consolidation to understand the larger meaning of the IHMs’ rupture.

The final presenter will address the story of Liza Nebbit to explore the complex relationship between slavery, race, and Catholicism in 19th-century America. A woman born into slavery in antebellum Missouri and Louisiana, Nebbit was enslaved first by a French Catholic bishop and then French nuns, the Religious of the Sacred Heart. After the Civil War, Nebbit joined the lower ranks of the Religious of the Sacred Heart in St Michael’s, Louisiana. Nebbit’s case sheds light on how the growth of the antebellum Catholic Church was rooted in racial slavery and that it remained a racist institution after Emancipation. Nevertheless, Nebbit’s religious experience demonstrates that Afro-Catholicism was not just about loss and mere surrender.

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