Equity and Inclusion


In response to the proposal from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) that congregations focus on the dismantling of racism, the Adrian Dominican Sisters began by identifying resources that can assist us in raising our consciousness of white privilege and white supremacy, both personally and systematically.

Since January 2021, our Toward Communion: Undoing Racism and Embracing Diversity Committee and our Justice Promoters have collaborated on a project to provide information on prominent Black and Indigenous Catholics who have made significant contributions to the church and society, along with reflection questions and a prayer.

In May of 2022, Kevin D. Hofmann was named the founding Director of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion for the Congregation. With the goal of normalizing conversations about race and culture and discussing what it means to feel included and excluded, Kevin began contributing to this blog in June of 2022 and shares his unique experience of growing up Black in a white family in Detroit.

 

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Sister Jamie Phelps, OP, A Story of Faith

Sister Jamie Phelps, OP

Black Catholic Project: Sister Jamie Phelps, OP,
A Story of Faith

Sister Jamie Phelps, OP, is the pioneer African American woman who felt a deep call to join the Adrian Dominican Sisters — an all-white Catholic congregation of religious sisters. Her decision resulted in many blessings as well as challenges. This story of a Black woman joining a white congregation reveals the unwavering strength, the deep faith, and the power of a soul firmly committed to her God.

In her own words, the paragraphs below share some of Jamie’s life. A fuller version of her story was published in the Congregation’s 2021 publication for members, Reckoning with Racism: A Lenten Journey.

 


I was born a “Free Negro” in 1941, the youngest child of six born to Alfred and Emma Phelps in Pritchard, Alabama, near Mobile. I am an African American religious woman who as a child had to be taught by her parents to overcome the interpersonal and structural racism she would encounter in her life journey.

I am not sure when, or if, my great grandparents had been enslaved. My ancestry traces predominantly to Africa with vestiges of Northwestern European ancestors, including Irish. My grandparents on both sides of the family believed that owning property and providing their children with a college education would guarantee our freedom.

My parents were both born free in 1911 and met as students attending Alabama A&M College (now University), in Huntsville. They married after graduation and began their family of six children, William, Alfreda, Marionette, Julius, Alfred Jr., and me, Jamie.

About a year after my birth and baptism, my parents migrated to Chicago. There, my father established a moving company, bought our first home on the West Side, and invested in rental real estate. My father and his siblings all started their own businesses; it was both a family tradition and a way to deal with the racism that strictly limited opportunities for African Americans. My siblings and I were enrolled in St. Matthew’s, a Roman Catholic parish and school staffed by Irish Catholic priests and the Adrian Dominican Sisters.

We were encouraged to go to college and pursue whatever field interested us. My parents told us that God had gifted us with talent and intelligence and we were to develop these gifts for the benefit of the community. I remember, as a 4-year-old, noticing there were three “helping” professions: Teachers, nurses, and telephone operators! (This was before cell phones.)

After making first confession and communion as a 7-year-old at St. Matthew’s, I began to go to daily Mass and went to confession weekly. I used the occasion to talk with the priest about my relationship to God and how I could serve God. I decided that while a telephone operator could help with emergencies, a “Sister” was concerned about God and the souls of people. To me this was a higher calling – and it had nothing to do with blood, like nursing! I was attentive to the joy and excellent teaching the Adrian Dominicans embodied.

I thought I should answer God’s call to the sisterhood by writing to Mother Gerald Barry, OP, to ask if I could enter the Adrian Dominicans when I graduated from eighth grade. I recall that her first inquiry was, “Are you Catholic?” She suggested that I might want to go to two years of high school before coming to join the Adrian Dominicans. She let me know that the congregation was “all white” and suggested that I might need to be more mature to adjust to living in an “all-white congregation.” I was disturbed and disappointed by what seemed like a racially prejudiced response.

As I approached high school graduation, I again applied to the Adrian Dominican Sisters. I prayed to God: “I’m trying to do your will, but if they say ‘no’ a second time, you know it is the Sisters who are blocking your will. I can only say, ‘I tried.’ We will simply have to seek another way for me to serve you.” The second time, I received a “yes” from Mother Gerald.

My Postulant Mistress welcomed me and treated me the way she treated the other women: when she was tough on the others, she was tough on me and this “equality of treatment” was welcomed. At my first mission it was soon noticed that the superior there had no use for African Americans. I was called to the Motherhouse to discuss the situation and I was reassigned to my second mission, a community where we enjoyed working as an educational team together. A spirit of comradery prevailed.

As an Adrian Dominican religious woman, by the power of God acting in and through me, I have served the Church and larger human community as an educator teaching at all levels or education: elementary to doctoral. I have participated in God’s healing and empowering ministries as a psychiatric social worker and community organizer, helping my clients discover and use their God-given power and gifts.

As a theologian and spiritual director, I have mediated God’s presence sacramentally and helped my students, who in their theological research sought to use their God-given power and gifts for the well-being of all the People of God, in our rich racial, gender, economic, geographic, and social diversity.

I give thanks to my family, those Adrian Dominican Sisters who guided me through my early years, my formation directors, and all those who befriended and accompanied me in our mutual intellectual and spiritual journey as members of the Dominican Order and the National Black Catholic Sisters’ Conference and other Black Catholic and Catholic institutions and organizations.

I praise God who did not abandon me and my call to the Adrian Dominican religious congregation because of these initial rejections. The racism we have encountered in the Catholic Church and society has not triumphed because the God who dwells in us helps us “do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine!”


 

We Adrian Dominican Sisters have been blessed by Jamie’s spirit, hope, humor, and faith for nearly 60 years. Over and over she has risen; over and over she has graced our lives and enriched our vision. Jamie, we love you and thank you profoundly for all the ways you have shared this journey of faith and diversity with us.

- Sister Nancyann Turner, OP

 

Portrait of Sister Jamie Phelps by Archie McPherson

Sister Jamie Phelps
Painting by Archie McPherson, age 13 - Part of the 2020 Black Catholic Heroes Project
Images of Black Catholics painted by students employed by the College for Creative Studies’ Detroit Neighborhood Arts Corps
(used with permission)

 

Resources

Racial Justice and the Catholic Church by Bryan N. Massingale (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Press, 2010).

Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle by Shannon Dee Williams (Duke University Press Books, 2022).

A Sister's Story: Sister Jamie T. Phelps, OP - Adrian Dominican Sisters

 


Reflection Question

In the October 30, 2020 issue of America Magazine, Bryan Massingale wrote, “Every Black Catholic priest, sister, brother, deacon and lay pastoral leader can relate experiences of how our presence in the church was met with wariness, hostility or incredulity ('You’re Catholic?'); our leadership abilities were doubted or dismissed; our vocations were denied or challenged; and our Catholicism was deemed suspect."

1. Was there a time in your life when you failed to relate to others because of their race or culture?

2. Have you grown in your appreciation of racial, cultural, and gender diversity?

3. How does racial/cultural marginalization contradict God’s universal and unconditional love for all — and the church’s call to community?

 


Prayer

God our Father and Mother, imbued by the power of your spirit and liberated by the redemptive life and death of Jesus, help us welcome into our community and church all peoples, regardless of race, gender, class, culture or nationality. 

You have enriched each person and each culture with gifts and talents to be shared for the common good. 

Help us to recognize your presence and action in all your sons and daughters. 

Help us continue as a people of faith, hope, and love as we prepare to receive the gift of your Reign.

Amen.

 

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People of African Descent on the Path to Sainthood

Printable bookmark of African Americans on their Way to Sainthood (PDF)

U.S. Black Catholic History Links

Black Catholic History page by Seattle University

Timeline from the National Black Catholic Congress

Sister Jamie T. Phelps, OP, discusses Black Catholics in America with Dr. Paul Lakeland for Fairfield University's "Voices of Others" video series

News report on one of the oldest Black Catholic parishes in the U.S., St. Elizabeth Catholic Church (formerly St. Monica) in Chicago, Illinois