Black Women Forge Unique Sisterhood

The Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore was the first Roman Catholic order in America to accept Black women as nuns. It was founded nearly two centuries ago and remains active, with some 100 sisters offering their services to those in need. Sisters Virginie Fish and Marcia Hall talk about what drew them to the order, the personal transformation they underwent to become nuns and how being black women has influenced their sisterhood.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Happy holidays. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison talks about her storied career and her latest work, "A Mercy." But first, as part of our special holiday programming, we want to tell you about a special group of women who are living a life of service. The Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore have been serving inner cities throughout the United States and abroad for nearly 180 years.

It is the first Roman Catholic order for black women, and for a time, it was the only order that would accept black women into a Catholic community. Today, the Oblate Sisters have about 100 members and continue teaching and offering other service to the poor and neglected. Joining me now are two of the Oblate sisters, Sister Virginie Fish and Sister Marcia Hall, and they were kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studio. Sisters, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us, and merry Christmas.

Sister MARCIA HALL (Oblate Sisters of Providence): Hi, Michel.

Sister VIRGINIE FISH (Oblate Sisters of Providence): And to you. It's our pleasure.

MARTIN: If I could ask you what drew you to this life, Sister Virginie, if you would start?

Sister FISH: I have been an Oblate sister for a little more now than 63 years. I entered right out of high school when I was 18. And somewhere along the way in my 10th year of high school I began to get the idea that maybe that's what God wanted me to do. And it was, yes, no, Lord, I'll be a sister if you ask me, but don't ask me - asking for advice from wise counsel, prayer, and eventually when I graduated, I became an Oblate sister. And now 63 years later, looking back I have no regrets.

MARTIN: Sister Marcia, you had a different path, as I understand it. Sister Virginie became - she was a teenager essentially, 18 years old.

Sister HALL: That is correct.

MARTIN: And you had a fully developed career. You were a professor; you were a dean. What led you to this life?

Sister HALL: Well, I wasn't all those things when I first had the idea about being a sister. I was in graduate school, and I had an image, vision, of myself in an Oblate habit. And like Sister Virginie, I said, I don't think so, and finished graduate school, went on to work to the things you mentioned, being a dean, being a professor. But I realized at some point that I wasn't happy doing the things I was doing. I didn't want to stay in academia, and I decided maybe I ought to check this out. And so, I started visiting Baltimore and spending time with the sisters. They had taught me in elementary schools, so I was familiar with the community.

MARTIN: But were you Catholic?

Sister HALL: Yes.

MARTIN: You were?

Sister HALL: Definitely.

MARTIN: So, it wasn't that far of a leap. You had been exposed to the order and to the life.

Sister HALL: Well, my parents were very active in a church, still are, and so sisters and priests were guests in our home, so it wasn't unfamiliar to me at all. The more I pursued it, the more I said I want to keep pursuing it. And I finally said my yes after 11 years, and I'm still here. I celebrated 10 years on December 8th. So, I've been an Oblate 10 years, and I'm happy.

MARTIN: Congratulations.

Sister HALL: Thank you.

MARTIN: What did your families say to you when you decided to undertake this life? Sister Virginie, what about you?

Sister FISH: I am from Washington, D.C., and my father died. He was a policeman killed in the line of action when I was five.

MARTIN: I'm so sorry.

Sister FISH: So, my mother would have raised my sister and myself as a single parent. My mother, of course, as mothers will do, well, baby, if that will make you happy. My sister said - and she was the one who was responsible for my conversion to the Catholic faith - my sister said, you always did act like a fool.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sister FISH: But they supported my decision and both accompanied me when I - the day I entered the convent, and throughout my religious life both were my support and comfort.

MARTIN: Now, you're not cloistered.

Sister FISH: No.

MARTIN: So, you have a lot of interaction with the outside world, as it were, but there are still adjustments to be made. I mean, people know about the obvious, they know about the celibacy, and they know about the giving away of your material possessions. But what are the things that people don't know?

Sister FISH: We have not taken the vow of destitution. We have taken the vow of poverty. We do take the vow of obedience. And we take the vow of chastity. So, some people will said, oh, you can do this or you can do that, you can go here or go there. We are ordinary women trying to live an extraordinary lifestyle because this is what we feel that is - God is asking of us. So, we take the vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. It is an opportunity to serve God and God's people in the best way that we can.

MARTIN: We live in a time when I think many people hold members of religious orders in high regard. But they would say, just as you each said in - earlier in your life, oh, I would never do that. I don't understand why anybody would do that, particularly that whole submission part. Many people can see submission to a career or the disciplines of a career, but the whole-life submission is something that I think many people may have trouble with. Is there any way that you could explain the joy of your life?

Sister FISH: There's an awful lot of joy in our lives. I tell people they haven't had fun until they've had it in a convent. Scripture says, those who leave father, mother, country, family for my name's sake will receive a hundred following in this life and eternal life. So, I don't want to be presumptuous and say we have it made for heaven, but I would like to think that I know I am going to go to heaven.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with Sister Virginie Fish and Sister Marcia Hall, two members of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. It's the world's oldest Catholic religious order for African-American women. I think many people might find it hard to fathom that the church, of all places, would not accept black women in other religious orders before the Oblates. Certainly that's not the case now. I would assume that people of whatever background can serve in whatever order that they are called to. I mean, you know, the Gospel says in Christ there is no, you know, Jew or gentile, male or female, presumably no black and white. So, how do you - how did you process that in your own head?

Sister FISH: I am a product of my own social environment. I have come up throughout my life with discrimination, racism. It was a part of my early childhood; it was a part of my life; in schools, I went to segregated schools. We're talking long before integration. When I first found out that that's what God wanted me to do, the sisters who'd taught me did not accept black girls. And the reason they gave was twofold: One, they were called to serve African Americans, and two is society in those days did not allow blacks and whites to live together in the South, and they would not tolerate having black women who could not live equally with their white counterparts. It made sense. I didn't like it. I didn't think that it was a satisfactory answer, but that was the way it was in those days. But you learn to survive the disadvantages of things in order to achieve what you want to achieve.

MARTIN: The irony, Sister Marcia, is that now - the order once had, what? Something like 300 members around the world? And now the - your numbers are down to about 100, I think, serving mainly in the United States. Yes?

Sister HALL: Yes.

MARTIN: And you're currently the vocation director, so you are the person who guides young women who are interested in taking the journey that you have already made. What is the future for an order like this? I mean, in a way, the order is steeped in pain. It's steeped in segregation and isolation, separateness, and of course, out of that separateness comes service mission. What about the future?

Sister HALL: Well, my first response is only God knows the future. The second response is that we're still here. I mean, part of the miracle is on July 2nd of 2009 we will be 180 years old. And there are still women out there who are interested in becoming a part of our community, and part of what I do is to search them out and walk with them. It may look bleak to people looking in. I mean, when you started out by saying it's steeped in - I mean, all those sound very negative. And that's not my experience of the community. Certainly, I came along in a different time from Sister Virginie where I had different options. I felt in my bones that I did not want to be a member of a predominantly white community. I had lived that life for 25 years as an academic, and I said no way. So, I went back to the women who had nurtured me as a child, and I felt very comfortable there.

MARTIN: Sister.

Sister FISH: I just would like to throw in, we have always been integrated. Secondly, I always feel when asked this question, God doesn't play the numbers game. He had 12 apostles. Look what he did with 12 unlikely, uneducated, woebegone men. God can still use us. He's not finished with us yet. The work still has to be done. There are many children, many adults, many people who have to hear - will only hear the word of God through Oblate Sisters of Providence.

MARTIN: What are you looking forward to in 2009?

Sister FISH: Personally?

MARTIN: Yeah.

Sister FISH: In 2009, I'm looking forward to doing more writing. I have taught from first grade through college. I have been around the entire country both in service and, thank God, even in pleasure. I have spoken to many different groups on many different topics, and I happen to have those talks that I have given, and I'd like to redo them and maybe publish them. I think maybe I have something to say to others.

MARTIN: That's wonderful. What about you, Sister Marcia? What are you looking forward to in 2009?

Sister HALL: I'm looking forward to finishing our vocations video and promoting vocations in a different way, to really being out there and about going to churches and schools and talking to young people and not-so-young people about the life that we live and maybe think about it for themselves.

Sister FISH: What Sister Marcia and I are looking forward to is perhaps Almighty God will hasten the day of canonization of our foundress, Mother Mary Lange. That means that the Catholic Church will officially and publicly proclaim that she's in heaven. And while we know she's in heaven, we want it done officially and publicly. That will be a day of celebration.

MARTIN: Sisters Virginie Fish and Marcia Hall belong to the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore. It's the world's oldest Roman Catholic religious order of African-American women and others who wish to join. They were kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studios. I thank you so much for joining us, and Happy New Year to you.

Sister HALL: Thank you for having us.

Sister FISH: Happy New Year to you. Thank you for having us.

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