Recently, a Global Sisters Report headline read: "Reckoning: White sisters respond to their own racism, to one historian's call for justice." The photo under the headline was of a segregated investiture ceremony in 1947 of the first five black Sisters of St. Mary (now the Franciscan Sisters of Mary).
The Franciscan Sisters of Mary opened their doors to African-American women in 1946, and the community became desegregated in 1950. I am one of the white sisters who was a friend and colleague with the black sisters pictured walking down the aisle. I worked, prayed, played, and lived with all five of them at one time or another during the past 60 or more years.
During this era, there were few opportunities for women of color to obtain professional training in health care. St. Mary's Infirmary School of Nursing in St. Louis accepted qualified candidates from across the country. The five women in the picture were students in the School of Nursing and asked to become sisters in the congregation. The Sisters of St. Mary took the initiative to establish a novitiate for the women during the time when segregation was part of the history of St. Louis. As segregation was eliminated, the separate novitiate was closed.
The black sisters received the same educational opportunities and were engaged in ministry in the same manner as all members of the congregation were assigned.
I am sure these women had to deal with overt and covert racism. Religious life leaders did not always use prudence and kindness as they interpreted the rules and customs of religious life.
Were the sisters who tried to create a pathway for women of color to a health care profession in the segregated city of St. Louis racists? It is hard to interpret the circumstances in which those sisters made the decision to establish a school and novitiate within the society of that day. But what I can say is that our foremothers were being inclusive and not exclusive of not only black women, but women of many ethnicities and cultures.
[Sr. Connie Fahey is a Franciscan Sister of Mary.]
Like what you're reading? Sign up for GSR e-newsletters!