Justice Issues


Statement Against Racism

OSP/IHM Committee on Healing Racism presents: Unconscious Racism Symposium

Four Congregations Commit to Fight Racism

by Lou Baldwin

Thursday, February 15, 2007
Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Standard and Times

The year 2007 is the seventh year since the millennium year. By biblical tradition, a seventh year is a Sabbath year — a time of forgiving debts, forgiving wrongs, letting the land rest, and listening to the law of the Lord.

What better time to put that into practice than the season of Lent, a time of penance, self-examination and forgiveness?

The three congregations of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (based in Immaculata, Scranton, Pa., and Monroe, Mich.) joining with the Baltimore-based Oblate Sisters of Providence, chose Ash Wednesday to issue a ringing "Statement Against Racism."

"We condemn the sin of racism and stand in opposition to the ongoing existence of this evil," the statement reads, in part.

Racism, to a greater or lesser degree, has touched, or touches, every part of the United States. It has touched every generation. It has even touched religious congregations.

No group of religious is more aware of this than the Immaculate Heart (I.H.M) Sisters and the Oblate Sisters of Providence, as this new statement opposing racism attests.

"Our four congregations own and admit openly that the dynamics of racism influenced our beginnings and impacted the unfolding of our four histories," their joint statement continues. "Racism led to barriers of separation among us for over a century. Now, in the graced process of reconnecting our journeys, we fully embrace the dignity of each human person as revealed by the mystery of the Incarnation."

Just how did racism impact these four congregations, which today have about 2,000 members among them?

According to the histories of the orders, which can be found on their Web sites, including www.oblatesisters.com, their history starts in 1829 in Baltimore, Md., with the Oblates Sisters of Providence, the smallest and oldest of the four.

Elizabeth Lange, an African-American Catholic, and three other like-minded women, set out to found the new congregation, with the help of Sulpician Father James Hector and the approval of Baltimore's Archbishop James Whitfield.

African-American women were not accepted for candidacy by the existing religious congregations at the time — nor were African-American men accepted as candidates for the priesthood.

The Oblates were the first enduring congregation in the world founded specifically for women of color. The sisters' work was not easy; they suffered discrimination, and received little support from the white community.

Self-sufficiency was impossible because the families of the children they taught were usually too poor to pay for their education. The sisters' troubles were further compounded when Archbishop Whitfield was succeeded by the less sympathetic Archbishop Samuel Eccleston. In light of the congregation's financial difficulties, he ordered the sisters not to accept new members. He suggested they disband and obtain positions as servants.

During that time of trial, their greatest champions and supporters were the Redemptorist Fathers, who helped them through an extremely difficult period. But discouragement led to defections from their ranks.

In 1841, one of Mother Lange's pioneer companions — Sister Marie Therese Maxis Duchemin ( Sister Theresa Maxis) — in 1841 succeeded the foundress as superior, a post she held for two years.

Sister Theresa was of mixed race and although her features and coloring were white, she was considered black in the antebellum South.

At the same time the Oblate Sisters were struggling to remain as an active order of nuns, a Redemptorist priest involved in a new ministry territory in Monroe, Mich., found a need for religious sisters in that area.

Father Louis Gillet invited Sister Theresa to come to Michigan to work.

She and one of the other sisters, perhaps sensing their congregation was dying, left the Oblates for Monroe, where they established a new order in November 1845. Mother Theresa was the first superior.

At first the sisters continued to call themselves Sisters of Providence. But in 1847, they changed the name to the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, exchanging their black scapular for blue.

Their race was not an issue in Michigan. The founding sisters were light-skinned, and most people assumed they were white. However, the Church authorities did know their history.

The Monroe congregation flourished and expanded rapidly, in a way the Oblates never could in Baltimore.

But Mother Theresa was at constant odds with Detroit's Bishop Peter Paul Lefevere, who was upset when she made decisions without his prior consent.

Bishop Lefevere was especially angry when the I.H.M. sisters opened new convents in Pennsylvania, beyond his jurisdiction. In a biography of St. John Neumann, author Michael Curley said the issue involved the rights of bishops.

Eventually the bishop deposed Mother Theresa, and after a time she went into exile with the Grey Nuns in Canada. Only many years later was she allowed to return to the Immaculate Heart Sisters in the Philadelphia area. She died peacefully in 1892 at the West Chester motherhouse, which is now located in Immaculata.

Most of that early history was virtually unknown to later generations of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Not until 1995, at the time of the sesquicentennial celebration of the Monroe congregation, did the four I.H.M. congregations begin exploring their roots, and the part racism played in their foundations.

From the Immaculate Heart Sisters' perspective, Mother Theresa left the Oblates of Providence for an opportunity to live out the life of a religious in a new setting — away from the racism of her day in Baltimore.

The Oblates, who overcame their early difficulties, saw Mother Theresa's departure from their congregation as an abandonment.

Now, they understand the real cause of the sundering of their original congregation was racism, itself.

Religious garb did not shield the Oblate Sisters from racism in Baltimore, nor could Mother Theresa Maxis escape it entirely in Michigan or Pennsylvania.

"We are beginning to acknowledge this racism," said Sister Rose Yeager, I.H.M., a member of the Immaculata congregation's general council and of the four congregations' joint Committee For Healing Racism.

That committee was founded in Baltimore in 2001, with its first meeting at the Oblates of Providence motherhouse. It meets twice a year, and has held annual intercongregational retreats for the past three years.

The joint Lenten statement against racism is a result of the congregations' years of reflection.

"We call people to reflect upon racism in their own lives," Sister Rose said.

The four congregations end their statement with a promise:

"[W]e commit ourselves to the work of undoing racism. By participating in the process of creating right relationships, healing and reconciliation, we are determined to eradicate racism within ourselves, our congregations, our Church, and our global community.

"There is a renewed awareness in the congregations that racism and other societal ills demand justice as well as charity," the sisters state.

Social justice and social charity cannot be separated, according to Sister Rosemary Davis, I.H.M., who sums up the sister's position in their congregational newsletter: "The goal of social charity and justice is furthering the common good. Social charity addresses the effects of social sin while social justice addresses the causes of social sin."

Oblate Sister Marcia Hall, the principal at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, acknowledged that there remain mixed feelings about Mother Theresa Maxis.

"It was hard for some of the sisters to accept her going out [from Baltimore] and there may be mixed feelings to this day — while others see her as discerning her own vocation," Sister Marcia said.

"Probably, Mother Theresa's personality played a role in her later problems," Sister Marcia continued. "She was a strong-willed woman, and strong-willed women generally have problems with men accepting them — and particularly in that generation."

Regarding the joint statement, Sister Marcia said: "We would like to have people read it, examine themselves [and] see what they can do in their own work about the racism that is still present in society."

Sister Marcia added that racism existed in the Church as in the rest of society, and some have acknowledged that, while other have not.

Meanwhile, over the decades, things have been changing for the congregations, as for the rest of the country.

For many years now, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary have welcomed African-American candidates into their congregations — as do all other American religious sisters' orders. And, yes, the Oblates of Providence also welcome non-African-American candidates.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo parish and a freelance writer.