This Far By Faith

In July, we attended the joint conference of the National Black Sisters' Conference (NBSC), the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons and Spouses, and the National Black Catholic Seminarians Association, held in New Orleans.

The NBSC is ...

... an inclusive Catholic organization of vowed Black Catholic Women Religious and Associates from many congregations of religious, which studies, speaks and acts on issues that impact the social, educational, economic and religious milieu of the United States and the world community.

—NBSC mission statement

The organization was founded by Martin de Porres Grey, RSM (now Patricia Grey, Ph.D.) in August 1968. Sisters Barbara Moore and Clementine Lynch, CSJ (Albany) attended the first gathering and, therefore, are considered founding members of the organization.

Our days began or ended with celebration of the Eucharist. Inspirational guest speakers were Dr. Grey; Dr. M. Shawn Copeland, a professor of theology at Boston College; Teresita Weind, SNDdeN and Reverend Donald A. Sterling, D. Min. We reflected on our journey with its concerns, struggles, challenges, joys and accomplishments. We were encouraged to learn from our past, gather energy for now, and plan for the future.

The conference included a Black Catholic Enrichment Tour that featured significant and historical church and neighborhood sites and their relation to the Black Catholic experience in New Orleans, such as Xavier University, which sponsors the Institute of Black Catholic Studies, and the Sisters of the Holy Family Motherhouse campus, which includes a retirement facility and St. Mary’s Academy. The hospitality extended to us by the New Orleans community was outstanding.

The theme of the gathering was “We Have Come a Mighty Long Way.” During our discussions, we decided that perhaps the theme was misleading. We continue to deal with many of the same obstacles and challenges. However, we could agree that, “We have come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord. Trusting in God’s holy word, God has never failed us yet. We have come this far by faith.”

One of the highlights of the conference was hearing from NBSC Founder Patricia Grey, as she was honored and the organization celebrated for its 50th anniversary. Patti was a sister at the time of the founding in 1968—Sister M. Martin de Porres. Six years later, she left religious life. She is now married and has three children.

As Patti shared her story, she revealed that as a young lady she always wanted to be a Sister of St. Joseph. When she was old enough to request entrance, she approached the provincial of a diocesan-based CSJ congregation. The provincial informed her that their congregation did not accept Negroes. She was crushed, devastated and her identity nearly destroyed.

As time passed, she realized her vocation was still rooted in her soul. With great courage, she approached the Religious Sisters of Mercy who welcomed her into their congregation. Some years later, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated and her provincial asked her, “What are you going to do to help your people?” She didn’t have an answer but the Holy Spirit did.

An African-American priest visited the convent and asked the provincial if he could meet S. Martin. During their visit, he mentioned the African-American priests were gathering to determine what they could do to help in light of Dr. King’s assassination. Sister Martin spoke for the first time in their conversation and asked if she could attend the priest gathering.

Permission was requested and her provincial said yes. When she arrived, she was not welcome at the “all male” gathering but she persevered. Requesting the ability to join them in their service, the priest responded, “no,” and pressed her to start her own group. Accepting the challenge, she started the National Black Sisters Conference.

Skipping the history of the beginning efforts, and all of her subsequent accomplishments, she went on to tell of the hurt she discovered was buried in her soul from her first rejection from the Sisters of St. Joseph. Fifty years later, God healed the hurt. While giving a talk about the founding of the NBSC, someone in the audience heard the name of the congregation that rejected her and notified the current provincial. That provincial was so moved that she located Patti and asked her to visit her at the provincialate.

During their conversation, the provincial apologized for the response toward her 50 years earlier, and then gave her a surprise that changed her life again. They walked to a room filled with the sisters that would have been her band the year she requested entrance. The reunion was healing and life changing. The charism of unity and reconciliation continued to flow until its end was met despite the span of time.

Patti now has a new story to tell of healing and reconciliation. She has new memories to replace the deeply buried wound. The picture was shared of her band. Now, a new picture is added to her story with some of the African-American Sisters of St. Joseph that attended the 50th anniversary along with her.