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Shannen Dee Williams and her book on Black Catholic Nuns

UD historian comments on story captivating the Catholic world

The nation's preeminent scholar on Black Catholic nuns, Shannen Dee Williams talked to Our Sunday Visitor for its story, which has been picked up worldwide, on the recent discovery of a Black American nun’s apparently incorrupt remains.

Williams, an associate professor of history at UD, is the author of Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle.

In Our Sunday Visitor's story "Nun's incorruptible remains highlight rich heritage of Black Catholics in U.S., say experts," which has been picked up in New Zealand and Africa, and by prominent Catholic magazine America; Williams said Benedictine Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster's story — along with those of three other African American nuns now on the path to sainthood — "embodies the fundamental truth that Black history is and always has been Catholic history in the U.S." 

Williams also told OSV News that Sister Wilhelmina — born in 1924 as Mary Elizabeth Lancaster in St. Louis — was "a descendant of enslaved Black Catholics" who grew up "during the Jim Crow era," a period spanning the 1870s-1950s when various laws in Southern U.S. states enforced racial segregation.

According to OSV's story, Sister Wilhelmina immediately entered the Oblate Sisters of Providence after graduating high school. One of eight historically Black orders in U.S. history, the Oblate Sisters stand as both "the nation’s and the modern world’s first Roman Catholic sisterhood established by African-descended women," said Williams. "From the early 19th century, the Oblate Sisters of Providence preserved the vocations of hundreds of Black Catholic women and girls called to religious life, but barred admission into white orders solely on the basis of color and race in the U.S., Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean."

The Oblate Sisters later "gave rise to three additional orders," Williams told Our Sunday Visitor: the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary; the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary; and the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, which Sister Wilhelmina founded in 1995.

Sister Wilhelmina’s establishment of an "interracial, contemplative Benedictine community" underscores the uniqueness of her story, which "bridges racial divides in the Catholic Church, especially within more traditional communities," Williams also told OSV.

During 13 years of research for her book, Williams uncovered the history of America’s real sister act: the story of how generations of African American women and girls fought against racial discrimination and exclusion to become and minister as consecrated women of God in the Roman Catholic Church.

"It is a history that has been largely suppressed and in far too many cases deliberately erased," Williams said. "My book demonstrates that the history of Black Catholic nuns in the United States unequivocally matters, and has always mattered." 

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News and Communications Staff