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THE HISTORY OF OUR BELOVED COMMUNITY

For more than 50 years, the National Black Sisters’ Conference has brought together hundreds of Black women religious to share their faith, promote positive images of Black people, and speak out against moral injustice.

Its origins begin with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, when racial unrest reached a pinnacle point in America. Riots rooted in grief, frustration, and anger filled cities across the nation as the hope of Dr. King’s dream seemed to perish along with him.

Amid this social unrest and shortly after Dr. King’s death, Sr. Martin de Porres Grey, RSM (now Patricia Grey, Ph.D.) was invited to a caucus of black Catholic priests in Detroit, MI to share their experiences and determine how to continue their ministry within the church.

This gathering of roughly 60 Black priests is considered the beginning of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus (NBCCC). A statement was released following the caucus, stating that the Catholic Church in America is a primarily white institution and demanded that black clergy be given control of Catholic institutions in black communities, among other requests. According to the Smithsonian, this statement is considered to be the inaugural moment of the Black Catholic Movement in the United States.

After the caucus, Sister Grey returned to Pittsburgh, PA, and received permission to gather black sisters for a weeklong meeting. In May of that year, she sent out a letter to American female superiors, asking them to send their black sisters to the event. Of the roughly 600 letters Sister Martin de Porres sent out, only 200 replied.

Despite this “lukewarm support,” she proceeded with the gathering in August 1968, with the generous support of the Most Reverend John J. Wright, Bishop of Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh Sisters of Mercy.

More than 150 black Catholic women religious from 76 religious communities in 22 states attended the first gathering of the National Black Sisters Conference (NBSC) at Mount Mercy College (now Carlow University) in Pittsburg. All the sisters who attended the first gathering are considered founding members.

 

“It was important that we get together so we could evaluate our roles as participants in the Church and come to a deeper understanding of our own people’s position and the creative tension now circulating in the Black communities,” said Sister Grey in an interview with Ebony magazine on the NBSC gathering in 1968.

Sr. Barbara LaRochester attended NBSC as the only Black sister from the Holy Family of Nazareth. During the gathering, she connected with other Black women religious throughout the nation. “That was the biggest surprise of my life,” said Sister LaRochester. “It was the first time I had been with a large group of Black sisters. I was comfortable there...and I made good friends.”

“It was just a wonderful experience of our gathering together and various what I would consider, ‘soulful liturgies,’” said Sr. Barbara Moore, a founding member of NBSC and member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. “It was just marvelous. I was just very pleased to be among so many other sisters of color.”

During that first meeting, an annual conference was established, Sister Grey became president and a board of directors was elected. Plans were also made for the legal incorporation of NBSC.

After the NBSC conference, Sister Martin de Porres was hopeful for “a deepening awareness of the contemporary moods of Black people, more support by the nuns for each other, and successful attempts to create a positive living relationship between blacks and whites.”

NBSC continues to gather annually in its mission to support the dignity and rights of women of color, create mentoring and support systems for black women religious, and work for the liberation of black people. For over 50 years, NBSC has become active in black laity groups, organized seminars, and spoken out on racial justice.

 

Today, the organization supports more than 150 women religious in their ministries of social justice, advocacy, and witness to the Gospel of Christ’s church.

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