'Time for togetherness': National Black Sisters' Conference celebrates 50 years, honors founder

The National Black Sisters' Conference celebrated its 50th anniversary Aug. 1 by honoring its founder, Patricia Grey.

Born Patricia Muriel, she was refused admission into the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, Pennsylvania, because she was black. When she joined the Pittsburgh chapter of the Religious Sisters of Mercy in 1961, taking the name Sr. M. Martin de Porres, she was the first African-American woman to do so.

In 1968, she formed and became the first president of the National Black Sisters' Conference, which she led until she left religious life in 1974.

At the closing banquet of a joint conference of several black clergy and religious groups, which met July 27 through Aug. 2, Sr. Roberta Fulton of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, the current president of the National Black Sisters' Conference, said the sisters' conference is alive and vital today because of Grey's vision and work.

But Grey said the credit doesn't go to her.

"This is the work of the Holy Spirit, there's no question," Grey told attendees. "I know Sister Roberta said I had the vision ... but the Holy Spirit was working through me. I was just the vessel."

Grey's recognition came at the joint conference of the National Black Sisters' Conference, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons and Spouses, and the National Black Catholic Seminarians Association. The National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus is also celebrating its 50th anniversary, and the deacons' group is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

The groups spent nearly a week together, meeting, worshipping and singing. On July 31, they toured sites in New Orleans important to black Catholics, including St. Augustine Catholic Church, where Venerable Sr. Henriette Delille, founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family, the second religious congregation for women of color in the United States, professed her first vows.

The groups also announced July 31 they were joining in a unified effort with Xavier University of Louisiana and others to advance the causes for five black sainthood candidates.

As they began the closing banquet, officials noted that in 1968, only three of the sisters in the sisters' conference were in leadership in their communities and there was only one black bishop in the United States. Today, there are nine active black bishops and seven more retired, and most of the sisters are either in leadership or have been in the past.

Grey told attendees that the sisters' conference continues despite the reluctance of the Catholic Church to embrace its black members.

"It's because you're here in spite of everything, because you believe, because you have a commitment and a passion to serve the Lord," Grey said.

She also challenged attendees not to take the easy road.

"Jesus was a radical, bold and daring prophet," Grey said. "Who are you as you follow him? If you speak what everyone else is speaking, will it be the difference?"

She said black Catholics must continue fighting to make their voices heard.

"Step out and let people know you're here. This is not a time for exclusion, this is a time for togetherness," Grey said. "We are different in so many ways, but we are all part of the kingdom of God."

The group gave its annual Harriet Tubman Award to Sr. Thelma Marie Mitchell of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary.

Mitchell, who professed final vows in 1961, spent her career in health care and congregational leadership. Though she is retired, Mitchell volunteers at a spirituality center and two health care centers, and serves on several justice committees.

Mitchell declined to speak but told attendees, "Thank you. Thank you to all of you, and thank you to God."

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is dstockman@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]