Persons of Color and Religious At the Same Time: The Oblate Sisters of
Providence, 1828-1860. By Diane Batts Morrow. Chapel Hill and London:
University of North Carolina Press, 2002. 368 pp. Cloth $49.95.Paper $19.95.
Even though the Oblate Sisters of Providence were among the first women to found a religious community in the United States and the first successful community of African American sisters, they are little known outside of the African American Catholic community. In Persons of Color and Religious At The Same Time: The Oblate Sisters of Providence, 1828-1860, Diane Batts Morrow brings these remarkable women and the antebellum black Catholic community of Baltimore to the forefront of American history. Morrow describes her work in recovering the history of the Oblates "as a response to scholar Cyprian Davis's assertion that no adequate history of any of the black Catholic sisterhoods exists" and she says, "this study aspires to be a contribution toward rectifying such an egregious omission" (11).
Morrow brings readers into the religiously complex and racially charged world in which the Oblates found their origins. She introduces Elizabeth Clarisse Lange and James Hector Nicholas Joubert de la Muraille, the co-founders of the Oblates, and the Saint Domingue refugee community of which they and many black Catholic Baltimoreans were members. Deftly, Morrow explains how they negotiated the Francophone, Anglophone, American and Catholic cultures that made up antebellum Baltimore. And, then she shows how antebellum ideas, attitudes and practices regarding race, gender, religion, education, and immigration shaped the foundation of the Oblates, their charism, and their mission.
Morrow's thesis is that the Oblate Sisters of Providence successfully challenged the racist and sexist attitudes and practices of antebellum America that declared it impossible for black women to be women of virtue. The Oblates defied the racism that lodged in American society and permeated the Catholic Church in the United States by living virtuous lives committed to God and to the social and spiritual liberation of black people. Becoming women religious and teaching black children were defiant and liberating acts that changed the culture and the church. Regarding the significance of the Oblates, Morrow declares "if not revolutionary, Lange's and Joubert's foundation of the Oblate Sisters constituted a historic feat" (17).
Morrow is not the first to write a history of the Oblates, but her study breaks new and fertile ground because she brings to light dimensions of the Oblates' significance in the American Catholic Church and in the wider American culture that others have not. Morrow marshals a vast array of sources that include the Annals of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the Oblate Rule and Constitutions, account books, ledgers, parish sacramental records, episcopal correspondence, census materials, city directories, newspaper accounts, period literature, and secondary studies of the Oblates, African American women's history, and U.S. Catholic history to reveal in rich and engaging detail the Oblates' struggles and victories during the antebellum period.
In Persons of Color and Religious At The Same Time, Morrow offers a new argument regarding commonly held assertions about the Oblates' attachment to their French and Caribbean heritage. While Morrow does not deny that their French heritage via Saint Domingue was central to the Oblates' identity, her research shows that the sisters did not eschew Anglophone culture or American blacks. The antebellum Oblates were made up of free women of color of Caribbean descent, free born African American women, and African American women who had been born in slavery. The Oblates worked to integrate their French and Caribbean culture and religious traditions into their American religious community and to extend their ministry to the entire black community of Baltimore. In addition to discussing the influence of French and Francophone Caribbean culture, spirituality and language on the Oblates, Morrow also considers the influence of traditional African religious and cultural practices present in the Oblates' traditions and spirituality. She suggests that the Oblates' well-developed leadership skills may be connected to traditional African religion. Morrow calls her reader's attention to the strong leadership roles women played in traditional African religions and in Vaudou the Saint Domingan religion derived from Dahomean religion and Roman Catholicism, as possible models for Oblate leadership.
Another new direction that Morrow takes Oblate history in is her work in recovering the "mutually supportive relationship" between the Oblates and the African American Catholic laity. The Oblates' charism, their special spiritual gift, was education. Even before the religious community was founded in 1828, Elizabeth Lange and Marie Balas, one of the original Oblates, were already informally living out religious vocations and conducting a school for free girls of color. In the 1820s, black girls, Catholic and Protestant alike, had few opportunities for formal education. The Oblate Sisters responded to this great need by establishing a day and boarding school for girls of color and by serving as catechists for free and enslaved blacks in Baltimore. The sisters also provided the black Catholic community with a model of leadership and faith that they identified with and took pride in. And, the Oblate Sisters' chapel became a spiritual refugee for many black Catholics in Baltimore. In return, black lay Catholics became great and faithful friends and supporters of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Enrolling their daughters in the Oblates' school, organizing fundraisers for the Oblates and their ministry, giving money to the sisters, and offering moral support to the Oblates were all ways in which the black laity provided assistance and encouragement to the sisters. Morrow's keen assessment of the Oblates' relationship to the laity shows how vitally important they were to each other in keeping Catholicism alive in the African American community in the nineteenth century when the institutional Catholic Church for the most part accepted and practiced American racism, marginalized African Americans, and refused to ordain African American men to the priesthood.
Persons of Color and Religious At the Same Time is a gracious contribution. In interpreting the history and significance of the Oblates, Morrow brings into excellent conversation women's history, African American history, American religious history, Southern history, the history of women religious, African American Catholic history, and U.S. Catholic history. In my opinion it stands in the tradition of Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham's Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920, Judith Weisenfeld's African American Women and Christian Activism: New York's Black YWCA, 1905-1945, Carol K. Coburn and Martha Smith's Spirited Lives: How Nuns Shaped Catholic Culture and American Life, 1836-1920, Cyprian Davis's The History of Black Catholics In the United States and Stephen Och's Desegregating the Altar: The Josephites and the Struggle for Black Priests. All of these works bring the lives and historical, religious and cultural contributions of people and movements previously assigned minor character roles the stories of America to the center stage and make it possible for us to see through them a wider, richer, more complex, and more graced view of where we have been and where we might yet go. I look forward to the next time when I teach U.S. Catholicism. Persons of Color and Religious At The Same Time will be at the top of the reading list.
Cecilia A. Moore, University of Dayton