On Monday, April 5, 1971, representatives of Baltimore’s Black Catholic Lay Caucus traveled to the motherhouse of the Oblate Sisters of Providence (OSP) for an urgent meeting with Mother Mary of Good Counsel Baptiste. Distraught over the threatened closing of scores of Black Catholic schools across the nation, the caucus’s members aimed to develop a long-term solution with the sixty-four-year-old superior. They also sought to warn Baptiste of a duplicitous local campaign then underway. “Some priests have initiated long range plans to close black schools staffed by the Order,” the delegates charged. “In order to shift attention from their plans and motives they will attack and deliberately antagonize the Sisters in hope that the Order will withdraw. They will then place the blame for the school closings on the sisters.” The caucus warned that the assault would only “escalate and intensify,” and stressed the need for “strong black leadership” and unity among Black Catholics. They also called for rejection of the survival tactics many Black Catholics had long employed to remain in their Church. “The traditional Negro Catholic responses that ‘white is right’ must be replaced with an objective and analytical assessment of the role we, as blacks, have played in the perpetuation of the oppression of our people,” the delegates asserted. Although the representatives acknowledged the unique pressures that Black sisters faced from both “black and white Catholics” to “defend [either] the Church or their people,” they cautioned Baptiste against timidity. “We will hang together or we will hang separately,” the delegates warned.
In the early 1970s, no issue was of greater concern to the African American Catholic community than the survival of the Black Catholic educational system. Before 1965, Church- and state-mandated school integration had closed or merged (with other schools) several long-standing southern Black Catholic schools, many of which were led by the Black sisterhoods. Although members of the Black laity and sisters often protested these closures, the lack of a national Black Catholic apparatus left impacted communities with few options. However, the crisis of the late 1960s threatened the Black Catholic educational system with extinction. Between 1968 and 1969 alone, 637 U.S. Catholic schools closed, with schools in inner cities whose student bodies had transformed from white to predominantly Black or all Black following the Great Migrations and white Catholic withdrawal hit especially hard. Because Catholic schools had historically been the primary vehicles for evangelization in Black communities, many observers viewed archdiocesan and diocesan decisions to close Black Catholic schools (almost always without consulting Black faculty or parents) as proof of a concerted Church effort to abandon African American communities. Some even understood it to be part of massive white Catholic resistance to the civil-rights movement and increasing demands for racial justice within the Church. As such, the nation’s Black priests, sisters, and lay Catholics organized on local and national levels and fought back.
In a daring 1971 move, the leaders of the newly formed national Black Catholic religious and lay organizations, including Sr. M. Martin de Porres Grey, president of the National Black Sisters’ Conference (NBSC), traveled to Vatican City to present their grievances to Pope Paul VI. During their meeting with Vatican secretary of state Giovanni Bennelli, second in power only to the pope, the delegates argued that the Catholic Church was “dying” in the Black community, citing enduring racism in the Church, the interconnected crises of Black vocation losses and Black Catholic school closings, and the pressing need for Black leadership. However, the meeting did not produce tangible results. Bennelli remained skeptical of the delegation’s complaints, noting they were “in conflict with the reports from white American bishops.” As a result, the Italian prelate advised the group to take a “slow and measured” approach to addressing their grievances. In interviews given upon her return to the United States, however, Grey demurred. “The reality of the black Catholic situation in America is and has been one of separatism created by the domin[ant] culture of the American Catholic Church,” she declared. In addition to noting that Black Catholics had already demonstrated heroic patience with white Catholic racism, the NBSC president argued that the present crises demanded immediate action. “Within five years, most parochial schools in Black communities will be non-existent,” Grey declared, adding, “It does not have to happen.”
Like all sister leaders in 1971, the heads of the African American sisterhoods and the NBSC were knee-deep in an institutional crisis that few had predicted. After decades of steady exponential growth, the U.S. Church was in distress. In the previous five years, thousands of religious men and women had departed their congregations. Among sisters, the figures were especially stark. In 1966, the national sister population had reached an all-time high of 181,421. By 1971, that number had plummeted to fewer than 147,000, not including deaths. Equally distressing was the state of the U.S. Catholic educational system. Between 1965 and 1971, over 1,500 Catholic elementary and secondary schools closed, and thousands more were threatened with extinction. Northern cities already experiencing massive white Catholic suburbanization, such as Milwaukee, Saint Paul, Chicago, Detroit, and Denver, recorded enormous one-year drops in Catholic school enrollment and closed scores of parochial schools, including some of the region’s oldest. Thus, as the 1970s began, most sister leaders, especially those whose congregations staffed Catholic schools, were faced with two herculean tasks: reversing the decline in their memberships and keeping their order’s institutions viable.