WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Catholic educators met virtually this year at their annual conference, they took a close look at racism and how teachers should talk about its existence and work to promote an anti-racist environment in their schools.
“The challenges are already there; talking about them doesn’t make them appear,” said a presenter in an April 7 workshop on schools’ anti-racism efforts. Other workshops highlighted culturally responsive classrooms or diversity and inclusion.
But an April 6 presentation by Shannen Dee Williams, an assistant professor of history at Villanova University, set the tone for talks that followed with its upfront challenge to Catholic educators. Williams urged teachers to share Black Catholic history that not only highlights Black Catholics but also tells difficult truths about the Catholic Church’s involvement in slavery and segregation.
“We have to grapple with that,” said Williams, who pointed out that even St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who founded the Sisters of Charity and is described as the patron saint of Catholic schools, was a slave owner.
Williams, who specializes in African American, women’s, religious and civil rights history, spoke frankly about the church’s involvement in the slave trade from religious orders owning slaves to building churches in New Orleans with slave labor.
“Every Catholic should know how the church is deeply implicated,” she said, after debunking myths the church was “at the forefront of desegregation.”
Williams, who writes a column for Catholic News Service, urged Catholic educators to see their roles as vanguards in helping the church make reparations for its wrongdoings.
She also urged teachers to tell the stories of Black Catholics who endured in their Catholic faith despite discrimination they suffered and gave the church a great gift by their presence.
Educators commenting in the workshop chat section effectively served as applause for the online presentation. Many said they hoped to incorporate her points in their classes.
“Thank you for teaching us,” one comment said.
A keynote speech the next day by Gloria Purvis highlighted how racism in the church isn’t just a long-ago experience but something more recent. She also said it needs to be eradicated by looking at it through the lens of faith that recognizes the God-given dignity of each person.
Purvis was the longtime host of the EWTN radio show “Morning Glory” before the show was canceled following frequent on-air discussions of race after the death of George Floyd.
In her virtual address, she recounted how she experienced racism in her Catholic high school from a student’s repeated comments to her, the blatant lack of support from a school guidance counselor and a history teacher who said slaves were “treated honorably” by the Confederacy.
At the time, she said, there were “no rules that talked about racism and no way to talk about it.”
She urged Catholic school teachers today, speaking to their students against the backdrop of the nation’s racial reckoning moment, to help them recognize that “racism rends the bond of the human family,” which is contrary to word of God. That’s the starting point, she told them.
“You need to frame everything in light of faith, ” she added.
She also advised them to listen and hear what students are saying and not just from the lens of politics. “Don’t shy away from this. It’s a moment,” she insisted.
Purvis, who is a convert to Catholicism, also spoke about teachers at Catholic elementary schools, women religious in particular, who led her to a deep appreciation and love of the Catholic faith.
Her presentation’s chat section also was lit up with educators’ comments. Thanking her for her message, the teachers and school administrators essentially gave her a good grade, but also gave her homework: They want her to write a book about her experiences.