Learning the Gifts of Black Catholicism

November 19, 2020

By Sister Colleen O’Toole

There I was in Peru, for the Mercy-ing gathering of Sisters of Mercy under 50 in November 2019. I was telling Sister Cora Marie Billings about my kindergarten class, going on and on about attending a Black Catholic parish, having the children share traditions at school, the songs we sing, the pictures the kids drew of Jesus, the Black saints we learned about and how my faith and worldview have transformed. When I finished, she looked at me and said, “You know, you need to go to the Institute.”

The Institute she was referring to is the Institute for Black Catholic Studies, a master’s program through Xavier University of Louisiana, the nation’s only Catholic Historically Black University, in New Orleans. The Institute began in 1980 as an extension of the work done by the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus in 1968 and the Black Catholic Theological Symposium in 1978. Early teachers included Father Cyprian Davis, OSB; Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA; Father Bede Abrams, OFM; and Sister Jamie Phelps, OP.

I knew as soon as she said that that it was going to happen eventually, no matter what I had planned for the next few years. In my admittedly short time in religious life, I have had the blessing to know some of our wisdom sisters. They are women of deep understanding, prayer and vision. Sister Cora Marie is one of those sisters. When she tells you to do something, you do it. I kept returning to her with questions and excuses, and she kept gently and firmly dismantling them. Do they take white people? Would I be taking an opportunity from someone else? I’ve been out of school for too long! I don’t really want to study theology—it seems out of touch with our call to serve the poor, sick and ignorant. I left the meeting with a nagging feeling that she might be right.

So in July 2020, to my surprise—but not Sister Cora Marie’s—I was enrolled in the Institute for Black Catholic Studies. The Institute runs for three weeks every summer. This year, because of the pandemic, we met online. Morning Praise was at 8 a.m., then class until noon Mass and lunch. Our second class ran from 1:45 to 4:45 p.m. For a complete, holistic education, we were encouraged to attend some of the extracurricular activities. Tuesday and Thursday nights was African dance and drumming class, and Wednesday night was theological reflection. In between, we read books and wrote papers and studied like college students who had just downed an energy drink before a final the next day.

I love learning and writing and have always enjoyed school. However, it became apparent that my general background knowledge was severely lacking in this area. My professors would say something like, “You all remember what [this writer] wrote in [their famous book],” and it would be someone I had never heard of and a book I’d never read. Classmates cited theologians from movements I didn’t even know existed. My learning curve was so steep. I had an ever-growing list of things to google between classes and several very helpful classmates who messaged me with quick explanations during courses.

It was a crash course, not only in academics, but in humility. I thought I had been working very diligently on my understanding of race and racism, on being an anti-racist and on diversifying the media I consumed. I learned I still have so far to go, especially in my understanding of Black theology! Black Catholics have been in the United States since before it was founded, and some of those very old traditions still survive. We would sing a spiritual that was hundreds of years old, and it was the first time I had heard it. I learned the stories of the six Black Catholics in the United States on the road to sainthood. What other amazing gifts had I missed out on by not knowing about Black Catholicism?

It led me to reflect more on my upbringing and what I learned about race as a young person. I grew up in a white area and went to Catholic schools that were mostly, if not entirely, white. No one in my life ever explicitly said to me anything that I understood as racist. I learned that God wanted us to love everyone, no matter what, and my parents reinforced that. But race was a thing that made us different, and I learned as a child that it wasn’t nice or polite to point out peoples’ differences, be it their weight, their hair, their clothes or their race. This idea of being colorblind, that we are all the same on the inside, was very prevalent, and remains so today.

A classmate of mine, Father Kareem Smith, addressed this. He said he tells people, “When we are colorblind, we deny the beauty of God’s creation. I want you to see color. I want you to see who God created me to be.” In the Institute, I saw, in a clear and honest light, the beauty and diversity of the people of God. How much do we lose by not acknowledging the true universality of the Catholic Church? And how much more will we gain by stepping out of our comfort zones and listening to the experiences of our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) sisters and brothers?

In placing myself in a position of humility, I grew more than I ever could have imagined. Immersing myself in Black Catholicism expanded my heart and helped me realize the true global character of Catholicism. After all, Ethiopia was one of the first regions to embrace Jesus’ message! I look forward to my classes next summer, and I pray that between semesters, I remain open to finding God in people and cultures different than my own.

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  1. Michelle Gorman

    Thank you, colleen, for your honest sharing, and for letting us know that we can start from wherever we are. Keep us posted!

  2. Kathleen Ann Kolb, rsm

    Dear Colleen,
    Thank you for sharing your experience and learnings. Please continue to do so.
    Kathleen Ann

  3. Mary Pat Garvin

    Colleen, thank you so much for this heart-felt reflection! What a blessing to be having this experience at the Institute!

  4. Margaret Platte

    Wow! What a powerful account of your experience, Colleen. Thanks for sharing your story. I’m edified by your humility and sharing your vulnerability. Very inspiring.

  5. Carren Herring

    Congratulations Colleen. You are a leader. Go forward

  6. Rachelle Harper

    Colleen, your article stirred something deeply true in me! Thanks you! You’re a really good writer…. your sister Rachelle Harper

  7. Mary Ellen Howard

    What a wonderful gift you are given, Colleen. I’m so glad you listened to Cora Marie. I hope you will continue with the program and that the virus will be under control enough to allow you to meet in person. This will enrich it even more.
    Cora Marie can tell you about the anti-racism training program highly recommended by the community. Please sign up for this also. It will expand your understanding of the black experience in the USA.
    Blessings on your journey. Mary Ellen

  8. Carol Mucha

    Colleen, thank you for stepping out of your comfort zone and for Cora inviting you to consider the Institute. Now pray that we may all be able to step out of ours and contribute to the demise of racism!

  9. Rose Martin

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I suspect that you’re on a life-long journey to embrace your intercultural reality. Your witness both challenges me and gives me hope. In my opinion you’re also correct about Cora Marie!

    Rose Martin

  10. Doris Gottemoeller

    Very beautifully said, Colleen! (And remember, good theology is never out of touch with service to the poor, sick, and ignorant.) 🙂

  11. Sharon Schmitz

    Very insightful, Colleen and beautifully presented. Thank you.
    Sharon ( St. Louis)

  12. Kathy Wade, Mercy Associate

    Thank you, Colleen, for sharing your learning experience at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies, and for stepping out of your comfort zone. Immersion = expansion!

  13. Eileen Campbell

    Colleen, I am humbled by your sharing and most grateful!

  14. Maureen Mulcrone

    Dear Colleen,
    How wonderful it was to read your inspiring reflection. I too have been trying to become, as author Dr. Crystal M. Fleming says, “less stupid about race.” I’m glad Cora nudged you and I’m grateful that you are nudging the Community to be bolder and more insightful in our commitment to anti-racism.
    Every blessing,


  15. Elizabeth Mary Burns

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience of learning Black Theology. I have limited knowledge or understanding of the beautiful culture which Black Catholics brought to this country and hope you will continue to share with all of us as we journey into developing needed relationships.
    Elizabeth Mary Burns

  16. Mary Daly RSM

    Colleen, thank you so much for sharing your insights and experience! I am sure these will resound in your ministry as you go forward.

  17. Colette Baldwin

    Thanks, Colleen, for encouraging us to stretch in our understanding of Black culture and whatever else that involves. It was good to see you again on the prayer service yesterday, as well. Continued blessings.

  18. Sr. Marilyn Gottemoeller

    Thank you, Colleen for your powerful learnings not only for yourself but for all of us.
    Thank you for taking the time to share with us.
    Blessings and ❤️!

  19. Mary Sullivan

    Colleen, this is a superb article which I will read again and again, and learn from. As the many comments suggest, you have taught us all and blessed the Mercy Institute by your sharing.

  20. Janet Rozzano

    I really appreciated your honest sharing, Colleen. It reminded me again that we need to be aware of how systemic racism affects us in spite of our best intentions to be open and accepting.

  21. Martha Larsen

    Colleen, I greatly appreciate this blog. It touch me deeply. I am in an anti-racism study with Quaker friends [Friends friends] and realize I have much to learn. We grew up in a racist society so do not always know what we do not know. I too have become more and more aware of the richness of Black culture, but too for many black people the depth of their forgiveness and ability to deal justly with the racism of many of us. I know very little of Black Catholicism, but would like to know more.
    I do not know you, but I have seen you on Mercy internet places, so I do know what your look like. WE are blessed to have you as part of Mercy.

  22. Bonnie Heh

    Colleen, What a joy to read your reflection! You make me both proud and hopeful in the future of our life in Mercy. Please continue to share and know that we support you in love and prayer.

  23. Sarah (Sally) Sherman


    Thank you for your article–so challenging and beautifully written! I miss you and our fledgling racism discussions back in Cincinnati. Once “movement” is restored after Covid-19 I hope we can continue here, challenged by your words and your experience.

  24. Angela Reed

    Thanks Colleen. A truly moving reflection.

  25. Carolyn McWatters, RSM

    Colleen, I am so excited for you! I, too, was unaware of this Institute, but it sounds like a wonderful place and a great gift for you, for sure. You are a gifted writer, and I appreciate your honest, thoughtful sharing. This is such an important area of learning and growth for us all. Blessings to you!

  26. Sister Kathleen O'Connell

    Colleen, thank you for your wonderful observations and sharing them with us. You got me thinking!


    Thank you Colleen for sharing with us your deep joy in transformation at this time of Pandemic.

  28. Sheila Stevenson RSM

    Thank you, Colleen, for this very reflective article and sharing of your experiences. We can all learn from what you have learned. You bless us all.

  29. Richard Mary Burke

    Dear One,
    Thank you for your transparency and gift of writing. More importantly, heartfelt gratitude for your personal reflection and bias for action to model being a lifelong learner!
    Richard Mary☘️

  30. Marian Uba

    Thank you so much Colleen! Grateful for your sharing this part of your journey. A true reflection from the heart!

  31. Fran Repka

    Thank you for sharing your experience and insights. Thank you also to Cora who encouraged a deeper involvement in anti racism realities. What a call for all of us in Mercy.
    You are a good writer. Keep us informed.

  32. Fran Repka

    Colleen, what a beautifully written article on your experience and insights regarding anti racism and our universal blindness. Thank you. Thanks also to Cora for encouraging you. What a call this is to all of us in mercy. Keep writing.

  33. Louise Foisy, RSM

    Thank you for sharing your learnings in such a detailed and rich way. I have learned so much from you.

  34. Boreta Singleton

    I am glad you listened to Cora Marie and the Spirit speaking to you!

  35. Megan Brown

    Well done,Colleen. Thank you for stepping out and into the Institute.