A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
Nun Speaks of African-American Catholics' Untold Stories

US Embassy, Angelicum Mark Black History Month

By Andrea Kirk Assaf

ROME, 2 MARCH 2011 (ZENIT)
The U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas marked Black History Month last Friday with a guest lecture by Sister Jaime Phelps, an Adrian Dominican and director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The United States celebrates Black History Month each February as a way to deepen the public's knowledge and understanding of the culture, achievements and struggles of African-Americans. U.S. Ambassador Miguel Diaz and his wife, Marian, invited Sister Phelps, who became the first black Adrian Dominican in 1959, to share the "untold stories" of African-American Catholics at the Angelicum. Marian Diaz is a former theology student of Sister Phelps.

Sister Phelps, who is also the Katharine Drexel Professor of Theology at Xavier University, began by tracing the largely unknown complex history and relationship between African-Americans and the Church. "The gift of the faith was brought by missionaries," she said, even though some of those missionaries cooperated with slave traders and did not recognize the full humanity of the Africans.

In Africa, conversion to Christianity took place through tribal hierarchy; if the tribal leader converted the entire tribe followed suit. In the New World, however, conversion was by individual, but African-Americans' freedom to learn about and practice their faith was restricted by the condition of their status as indentured persons and inability to freely move about.

The Christian response to slavery up until the 18th century in the United States was at first largely focused on making slavery "more humane." In 1839, however, Pope Gregory XVI condemned slavery as "inhumane" and "contrary to the laws of justice and humanity" in the Papal Bull In "Supremo Apostolatus."

From slavery to segregation

Several religious orders devoted themselves to the specific mission of ministering to African-Americans and anti-slavery efforts, such as the Josephite Fathers and the Holy Ghost Fathers. Orders comprised of Black Catholics were founded, such as the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, and the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans.

Lay initiatives on the part of black Catholics began in the late 1800s, with five "Colored Catholic Congresses" taking place between 1888 and 1893 to discuss the particular needs of African-Amerian Catholics.

The new orders solely for Black Catholics that were established beginning in the 19th century reflected the segregation of not only society in general, but also the tendency toward self-segregation of the Catholic Church along ethnic lines in the United States among immigrant communities. It was not unusual, Sister Phelps explained, to find four different Catholic churches on four different street corners in an urban setting with a large Catholic immigrant population, each church serving as not only a place of worship but the social and cultural heart of the community.

While ethnic churches have steadily declined over the twentieth century throughout the United States, even today in one diocese in Louisiana three different Catholic churches exist in the same community — a white Catholic church, a black Catholic church, and a "high yellow" Catholic church, for individuals of Creole descent.

When asked whether it is a positive or negative phenomenon to retain this racial and cultural separateness, Sister Phelps told ZENIT that it's ambiguous, and all depends on the history and motivation.

"There is really only one local church — the diocese," she said, "and so the diocese has to figure out how to allow Catholics to celebrate in their cultural specificity without being exclusive and how to bring Catholics together in diocesan level local church celebrations where they interact with one another, recognize it, and are enriched both by the challenges and the gifts of the people. It's a both/and situation, but we have to be sure that we're not using this cultural question just to perpetuate racism."

We are not "congregational churches," at any rate, says Sister Phelps, and so we must always feel welcome to walk into any church as Catholics. In the predominantly Creole and black churches, Catholics of European descent will be welcomed, but it's not always true in the other churches, she explained.

Following Christ

Sr. Phelps' own life story is not unlike that of other African-American Catholics in the stories she shared with the audience. After receiving a bachelor's degree in sociology from Siena Heights University in Michigan, she felt called to join the Adrian Dominican Sisters in Adrian, Michigan. Initially she was advised to find an order specifically for African-American women, but Sister Phelps made a strong case for herself and her vocation, and so she became the first black member in the history of the order in 1959.

"In the end, I am accountable only to God," Sister Phelps told ZENIT, "and so I've got to follow where I believe he's leading me."

That call then led Sister Phelps to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she received her master’s in social work, to St. John's University in Minnesota, where she received her master’s in theology, and also to the Catholic University of America, where she earned her doctorate in systematic theology.

Over the last 50 years in public church ministry, Sister Phelps has served as an educator, psychiatric social worker, community organizer, pastoral minister, consultant, lecturer, liturgist, spiritual director, preacher, retreat director, administrator, scholar, theologian and author.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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