Shannen Dee Williams stumbled on the subject of black nuns by accident. Later, she would wonder if she had done the right thing by digging further.
“Had I known what I was going to uncover, I probably wouldn’t have done this project,” Williams said. “I was naive. I didn’t get it.”
What she didn’t get – what she never expected to find – was that the history of black women religious in the United States is replete with shocking examples of racism, racial segregation and marginalization, perpetuated by their white religious leaders and peers. At their peak around 1965, there were about 1,000 African-American sisters, Williams said, but there are only about 300 today.
Her project was first her doctoral thesis and is now a forthcoming book, Subversive Habits: Black Nuns and the Struggle to Desegregate Catholic America after World War I. Last week, she presented some of her research at “The Nun in the World: Catholic Sisters and Vatican II,” international symposium at the University of Notre Dame’s London Global Gateway campus, hosted by the university’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism.