Shannen Dee Williams, an assistant professor of history at Villanova University, is writing a book on the history of black religious sisters in America and the way they took on racism and institutional barriers to entry in religious life. Their story is, she says, an overlooked one, and one that American Catholics need to hear and know.

“We made the church Catholic,” Williams recalls the sisters telling her. “Racial segregation, exclusion have no place in the Catholic Church. If we had not fought to answer God’s call on our lives but also fought to serve our communities, the church would not be where it is today.”

The first black female religious orders in the United States were founded in the early 19th century, in part because other orders would not accept black women. Williams says that it wasn’t until World War II that religious orders began to desegregate.

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Photo: Michael Alexander/Georgia Bulletin via CNS