Dear Hollywood, It’s Time to Start Making Films about Real Black Catholic Nuns

Detail from the poster for 1992's "Sister Act" film, starring Whoopi Goldberg.

When news of Disney’s plan to reboot its wildly successful Sister Act franchise broke last week, media and fan reactions were as swift as they were predictable.

From TIME to The Guardian, divinely inspired headlines cheered the impending reincarnation of America’s favorite black Catholic nun and choir director on the silver screen. Some even began speculating about who among today’s leading black actresses might replace Oscar-winner Whoopi Goldberg, who starred in the first two Sister Act films and produced its Tony-award winning musical incarnation.

However, not all are excited about the forthcoming addition to Disney’s platinum brand.

On Twitter, diehard Sister Act fans have vehemently objected to the remake, calling it “a mistake” and “pure sacrilege.”

Matt Stopera over at Buzzfeed went even further. In an article titled, “Why the ‘Sister Act’ Films are the Most Important Films of Our Times,” Stopera called plans for the remake a “sin” and credited the 1992 smash hit original and its 1993 sequel with making him “a better Catholic.”

Why, you ask?  “[Because] they just felt like real nuns,” Stopera wrote.

Now to preface, I am a cradle Catholic and a huge fan of the Sister Act films. I have also spent the last nine years researching the history of black female religious life and interviewing scores of elderly black women who desegregated the nation’s historically white Catholic sisterhoods in the 20th century.

If Sister Mary Clarence and her soulful band of singing white nuns are testaments to any historical truth of U.S. Catholic female religious life, then I am the Queen of England, the President of the People’s Republic of China, and the lost ruler of Zamunda rolled all into one.

While angry reactions to remade classic films are understandable, the notion that Sister Act ever should be taken as anything more serious than Hollywood entertainment is downright ludicrous. It also cannot go unchallenged, not only for the sake of sanity, but also out of respect to the long and fiercely-contested history of black Catholic nuns in the Atlantic world.

Since the 1st century, thousands upon thousands of black women and girls have professed the sacred vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the Roman Catholic Church. However, the church’s longstanding practices of racial segregation and exclusion in religious life kept the global population of black Catholic sisters low and statistically insignificant in various parts of the world well into the twentieth century.

In the United States, for example, white Catholic sisterhoods were among the fiercest strongholds of racial segregation and white supremacy. The majority of white orders remained staunchly opposed to the integration of their ranks through America’s Civil Rights movement well into the 1960s, and most never had a single perpetually professed U.S.-born black sister in all of the 20th century. Moreover, archival records and oral history reveal that many pioneering black sisters in white congregations endured years of racial harassment, verbal abuse, emotional isolation, and daily humiliation.

Members of the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans, Louisiana, ca. 1899.

Members of the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans, Louisiana, ca. 1899.

Some, such as the first black Sisters of St. Mary (now the Franciscan Sisters of Mary) in St. Louis, Missouri, initially had to enter the backdoors of their motherhouse and profess their vows separately from their white counterparts. Many other black sisters had their ministries severely limited because their white counterparts refused to live and dine with them on a non-segregated basis or because the communities in which their congregations labored fiercely opposed the presence of black nuns.

Many black sisters in white congregations also endured intense pressure to deny and degrade their racial heritage in order to feel accepted by their communities. Some even admitted to praying to become white in order to stop the incessant bullying and racist name calling of their white counterparts. As Sister of the Blessed Sacrament Christine Nesmith aptly put it in 1971,

“Entering an order meant ceasing to be black and looking on what you grew up with as uncouth. You could do the Irish jig, but anything African was taboo.”

Such abuse and the prolonged intractability of white supremacy in female religious life eventually drove scores of black sisters out their communities in the late 1960s and 1970s, decimating their already marginal national population. While some black sisters left on their own accord or defected in explicit protest to racial discrimination, many others in temporary vows were summarily dismissed from their communities as a result of their political activism and willingness to testify publicly about their experiences of racist and sexist abuse in the church. Consequently, black sisters in white congregations (whether they persevered or not) routinely have been subject to historical erasure, marginalization, and myth-making.

If Sister Mary Clarence and her soulful band of singing white nuns are testaments to any historical truth of U.S. Catholic female religious life, then I am the Queen of England, the President of the People’s Republic of China, and the lost ruler of Zamunda rolled all into one.”

Indeed, it should give everyone pause that the world’s most famous and beloved black nun is a fictional character instead of an actual black sister-saint. It should also come as no surprise to discover that the character of Sister Mary Clarence was very loosely based on the life of an actual black nun, who fought to revolutionize Catholic masses by incorporating sacred African-American cultural and spiritual traditions.

In 1970s and 1980s, pioneer African-American Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration Thea Bowman took the U.S. Catholic church by storm with her public opposition to Catholic divestment from inner-city communities and her revolutionary ministry, which masterfully combined African-American storytelling, preaching, dancing, and singing. At the time of her death from bone cancer in 1990, Sister Thea, then only 52 years old, was arguably the most famous Catholic sister in America. Goldberg even was planning to produce a documentary about Sister Thea’s life.

Headshot taken by Beatrice Njemanze, in September 1985 in Jackson.

Sister Thea Bowman. Photo taken by Beatrice Njemanze, in September 1985 in Jackson, Miss.

That Sister Thea, who held doctorates in English and theology from the Catholic University of America and Boston College respectively, and whose cause for canonization, i.e. “sainthood,” is making its way through Vatican channels, could be reduced to the morally ambiguous character of Delores Van Cartier in the hands of white Hollywood producers is a tragedy.

That Sister Act remains the chief reference point for the vast majority of conversations about black Catholic nuns and the integration of female religious life is even worse.

While some may argue that the Sister Act films have helped to mitigate longstanding white opposition to black sisters and the casting of black women as nuns in Hollywood, the racist backlash to Audra McDonald’s scene-stealing performance as Mother Abbess in NBC’s 2013 live remake of The Sound of Music suggests otherwise.

Moreover, black sisters’ 2,000–plus years of history and the unprecedented growth of the global black nun population over the last 50 years demand that we begin making different kinds of films about black nuns, Kari Skogland’s made-for-television Courage to Love (2000) notwithstanding. We must also never miss an opportunity to include them in movies where they rightfully belong.

For example, two pioneer African-American nuns, Franciscan Sister of Mary Antona (Elizabeth Louise) Ebo and Sister of St. Joseph Ann Benedict (Barbara) Moore, were among the handful of Catholic nuns who traveled to Selma, Ala., to join the game-changing voting rights marches in 1965. In fact, Sister Mary Antona was in the first delegation of sisters to arrive in Selma, and she delivered an impassioned address to the national media when some questioned whether she was in fact “a Negro” and a nun.

Yet Sisters Mary Antona and Barbara conspicuously are absent from the Academy-award nominated film Selma, as are sisters such as Pittsburgh’s M. Martin de Porres (Patricia Muriel) Grey, R.S.M. who founded the radical National Black Sisters’ Conference in 1968. Although Grey’s superiors explicitly forbade her from traveling to Selma to participate in 1965 demonstrations, she led a delegation of students from her community’s Mount Mercy College (now Carlow University) in a Selma sympathy march through the streets of downtown Pittsburgh on March 16, 1965.

Sister Mary Antona Ebo speaks at a Civil Rights march in Selma, Ala., in 1965. Archive photo via the documentary film "Sisters of Selma."

Sister Mary Antona Ebo speaks at a Civil Rights march in Selma, Ala., in 1965. Archive photo via the documentary film “Sisters of Selma.”

That the black sisters who traveled to Selma and participated in solidarity marches across the nation at the same time were subjected to racial discrimination in their congregations undoubtedly fueled their determination to respond to King’s clarion call. Many in their position had already demonstrated an uncommon faithfulness by refusing to abandon their vocations in the face of whites-only admissions policies and traveling hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from their hometowns to enter communities that would accept “Negroes.”

This same indomitable faith and perseverance also enabled members of the nation’s black sisterhoods (established by black women in the 19th and early 20thcenturies to ensure the development of black female religious life in the Western world) routinely to turn the other cheek when white Americans, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, pushed them off sidewalks, ripped their habits from their heads, or threatened their convents and schools with violence during America’s slave and Jim Crow years.

The names of these courageous black women of God deserve to be better known than the fictional Mary Clarence, and we should take every opportunity to tell their stories of faith in the face of unholy discrimination in any way that we can—especially on film.

Their history—the real sister act, if I may—is a far more compelling drama anyway.

 

  • khughes1963

    One other African-American sister to remember, Henriette DeLisle of New Orleans, who started the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans.

  • ChrisM

    Not to be a pest, but it’s DeLille. She’s been declared “venerable” by the church, which is two steps short of sainthood.

  • khughes1963

    Thank you for noticing that. I had originally entered DeLille, but auto-correct fooled me!

  • Craptacular

    “Many black sisters in white congregations also endured intense pressure to deny and degrade their racial heritage in order to feel accepted by their communities.” – from the article

    Ah, religious love. The religious share this same “love” with the gay and lesbian community now. It’s ok to be “whatever-makes-you-different-than-a-white-heterosexual-male” as long as you don’t remind us of it.

    I admire these women for enduring life as a black, female catholic, which I would have found intolerable. Well written and eye-opening.

  • NancyP

    Thanks for this history lesson and for the links. I am not Catholic, so I hadn’t really wondered about religious orders’ racism. I never realized this, although I can’t say that I am too surprised, given what I know of St. Louis and Cincinnati history.

  • George M Melby

    The Roman Catholic church has always had ‘problems’ with humanity outside of its ‘inner’ circle of WASP addicts!

  • CoD

    I have no particular interest in seeing a serious movie about nuns, black, white or otherwise. For one I find nothing admirable in their vows of “poverty, chastity and obedience.” As far as Sister Act I think it is, like so many such remakes, completely unneccessary.
    But the most ridiculous part of this article must be the claim that those who objected to Audra McDonald in SOM were “racist” (easily the most overused allegation these days). Instead, the objection is to the historical implausibility of a black abbess in 1930s Austria. They might as well have made a Nazi officer black or something!

  • CoD

    P in WASP stands for “protestant”.

  • Chrissy

    Perhaps you should read the article in which the author (who has a Ph.D. in history by the way) discusses the notion of the “historical implausibility of a black abbess in 1930s Austria” before you offer uninformed comments.

  • NancyP

    Actually, I would claim that those who objected to Audra MacDonald in Sound of Music were plain deaf. Anyone who would whine about a singer of that quality doesn’t deserve the performance.

  • CoD

    One can think she is a great singer but still wrong for the part on other grounds. Unless the play ditched all notions of historical realism (by say have black Nazi officers or Asian Captain Van Trapp) like that version of Cinderella with Whoopi Goldberg (bringing it full circle to Sister Act) and Jason Alexander, I think casting should stick to factual and historical plausibility.

  • Chrissy

    Notice how CoD is still ignoring the fact that the casting of Audra McDonald was historically plausible. So, facts doesn’t matter.

  • Chrissy

    “don’t matter”

  • CoD

    Explain to me how her casting was historically plausible? If it was I would be glad to concede the point, but all I have seen in her defense is that she sings beautifully. So, please enlighten me on black Mother Superiors in 1930s rural Austria and I would be happy to change my opinion on plausibility of the casting choice.

  • The whitewashing and intentional invisibility of black nuns have always troubled me, but its even more appalling after knowing that so many of these sisters have given their lives to make our world better and in return we just ignore their existence.

  • cranefly

    This was very interesting and informative. I never knew anything about the history of black nuns in America, but now I have been privileged to learn something.

  • joeyj1220

    i liked this article and agree that Catholics should know more about black sisters, but the wretched movie Sister Act is a bad example to hang this article on; for someone who claims to know and love the movie, the author forgets that Delores was NOT a black, Catholic nun, but a non-religious lounge singer who IMPERSONATES a nun to hide out from the mob.

  • Daria

    You actually need to read the article. And you just made the author’s point. How could the world’s most famous black nun be a fictional character that wasn’t even a nun?

  • joeyj1220

    I did read the article… here, let me help you…”Now to preface, I am a cradle Catholic and a huge fan of the Sister Act films. I have also spent the last nine years researching the history of black female religious life and interviewing scores of elderly black women who desegregated the nation’s historically white Catholic sisterhoods in the 20th century.

    If Sister Mary Clarence and her soulful band of singing white nuns are testaments to any historical truth of U.S. Catholic female religious life, then I am the Queen of England, the President of the People’s Republic of China, and the lost ruler of Zamunda rolled all into one.

    While angry reactions to remade classic films are understandable, the notion that Sister Act ever should be taken as anything more serious than Hollywood entertainment is downright ludicrous. It also cannot go unchallenged, not only for the sake of sanity, but also out of respect to the long and fiercely-contested history of black Catholic nuns in the Atlantic world.”

    I draw your attention to that last sentence… considering “Sr. Mary Clarence” (as a character) is a lounge singer and not at all a nun, how could one expect (even if one wanted in such a silly, trite film like Sister Act) to even address the experience of black Catholic sisters. I was not the one to tie the idea to Sister Act, the author was

  • Daria

    ……..and you still don’t get it. But peace. Obviously, the author knows way more about the film and the history of black Catholic sisters than the both of us.

  • joeyj1220

    And you obviously still don’t get my point…I am not doubting that the author knows a lot more about black Catholic sisters, but the author doesn’t need to tie it to a lame movie. Peace to you too

  • nunsuch

    And there is a film about her, called “The Courage to Love.” It is fictionalized, but not entirely bad. There is a contrived love story, but much of the rest of it is pretty accurate.

  • CoD

    And yet she doesn’t understand the difference between Italy and Austria or between a regular nun and an abbess.

  • Chrissy

    She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and you don’t understand what plausibility means. But whatever, champ.

  • CoD

    What does ΦΒΚ have to do with whether she understand the difference between those two countries? One had colonial interests in Africa, the second didn’t.
    Showing the existence of an African rank-and-file nun in Italy does not show that an African abbess in Austria was plausible.

  • Chrissy

    Actually it does. The author also argued that there were black nuns (and superiors) in Europe’s slave societies in the Americas, which were obviously worse than the Austria of 1938. Plus, Mussolini’s Italy was not at all welcoming to black people. Italy sacked Ethiopia twice and exercised colonial power in East Africa. Read a book.

    And, show some respect to St. Josephine Bakhita. Josephine Bakhita was not simply a rank-and-file nun in Italy. She was an ex-slave who became a nun and a powerful figure in Italy and was later named a saint of the Church. Keep proving that you can’t read and don’t know history. That is one of the reasons you are obviously not a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

  • Chrissy

    Joeyj1220, why do you think your opinion (and obvious lack of knowledge of about the origins of the film and the history of black Catholic sisters) matter?

    I find it interesting that you have completely ignored the heartbreaking history of black Catholic sisters as well. You also missed the author’s key point:

    “That Sister Thea, who held doctorates in English and theology from the Catholic University of America and Boston College respectively, and whose cause for canonization, i.e. “sainthood,” is making its way through Vatican channels, could be reduced to the morally ambiguous character of Delores Van Cartier in the hands of white Hollywood producers is a tragedy.

    That Sister Act remains the chief reference point for the vast majority of conversations about black Catholic nuns and the integration of female religious life is even worse.”

    But, deflection is the game, right?

  • CoD

    She mentioned a nun. In Italy. Not a superior and not in Austria. The fact that Italy had colonial dealings in Africa is the reason it had African nuns in the first place. Austria had no African colonies that I know of.
    Is comparing apples and oranges to defend a PC casting choice a requirement for entering ΦΒΚ?

  • joeyj1220

    Oh for f—‘s sake. Are you really that thick? Let me say this again slowly so maybe you’ll get it this time (and not have to create other psudeonyms).. I loved this article, I personally knew Sr. Thea and support the cause of her canonization, and as I said earlier I don’t pretend to know everything about the history of black Catholic sisters. My point remains that Sister Act is a lame movie and is NOT a “chief reference point” for anything other than being remembered as a trifle piece of cotton candy cinema. You are clearly being obstinate and so this conversation is ended.

  • Chrissy

    “Oh for f—‘s” sake,” eh? Sure you knew Sister Thea and supported her cause for canonization. My mistake, this article is all about you. The author wrote it just for you. LOLOL

    And just because you think Sister Act is a lame movie does not change the fact that it was very loosely based off of Sister Thea’s life, reduced her a lounge singer, and that Hollywood generally doesn’t make movies about real black nuns–the point of the entire article.

    And yeah, not cussing makes me obstinate, cussing makes you fair-minded. LOLOL

  • Chrissy

    Right…….