By Sydney Clark
(CNS) – In 1956, 17-year-old Cora Marie Billings of Philadelphia joined the Sisters of Mercy in Merion, Pennsylvania, becoming the first black member of the Philadelphia community.
Catholicism has always been part of Sister Billings’ life, coming from a devoted black Catholic family that fought against racial barriers to fully participate in the Catholic faith and tradition.
Her great-grandfather was enslaved by the Jesuits at Georgetown University in Washington. His 11 brothers were also enslaved. They were baptized Catholics and their baptismal documents are at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown.
Sister Billings was the third person in her family to enter the religious life. In the 1940s, two of her aunts became members of the first successful black Catholic order in the United States, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, founded in 1828 by Mother Mary Lange. Her aunts could not join other congregations at that time because of segregation.
Sister Billings said that the spirit of her aunts, Sister Mary Paul (formerly Susan Lee) and Sister Mary Agnes (formerly Bertha Lee), her ancestors, and her strong devotion to Mary and St. Martin de Porres remained with her throughout six decades. her career as a black Catholic nun and gave her the strength to fight various challenges throughout her life.
In addition to the desegregation of the Sisters of Mercy chapter in Philadelphia, she made several “firsts.”
She was the first African-American sister to teach at a white-only general school in Levittown, Pennsylvania, and the first African-American sister to teach at a Catholic high school in Philadelphia.
She was the first black sister to serve as a campus minister at Virginia State University and the first African-American sister to lead a Catholic parish in the United States, working as a pastoral coordinator at St. Elizabeth of North Richmond, Virginia.
She also headed the Office for Black Catholics of the Richmond Diocese for 25 years and served as director of the Virginia Human Rights Council from 2007 to 2010. Billings is also a founding member of the National Conference of Sisters. Black Catholics.
In a question-and-answer interview with Global Sisters Report, Sister Billings discussed her faith, her childhood education, her call to action for the Catholic Church, and more.
Q: What / who drew you to join the Sisters of Mercy against a black historical religious order?
A: I joined Sisters of Mercy because they were one of seven sister communities that teach at West Catholic High School (Philadelphia), where I attended high school. I found them very welcoming, friendly, happy and I was drawn to their charisma. But I was also asked why I did not join the Oblate Sisters of Providence as my aunts did. I didn’t feel like that was for me. I feel like I could have done a lot more, being where I am.
Q: Can you remember any childhood memories that affected your faith and spirituality? Did your family have any favorite prayers, songs, or rituals?
A: I was an only child, and from third through eighth grade, I went to elementary school in West Philadelphia, in an area called “Black Bottom.” It was the real bottom of West Philly and it was a predominantly black community. It was not seen as one of the best neighborhoods in the area. When I went to school, I was alone. I walked eight or more streets to school every day.
I had a great devotion to Martin de Porres, and at that time he was “Blessed.” He was the only black saint I had. So for me, that shows some of the racism in the church, because the other saints who were canonized in the last 10 years and something died only 20 years ago. Martin died in 1639 and was not canonized until 1962.
Martin was very close to me. I prayed and talked to him on my way to school. My school was predominantly white Irish, with over 2,000 students. Probably only about 14 of us were African-American, so I needed a connection to my own identity.
Catholicism has always been a part of me and I tell people that I would never have been able to be and stay and live the life I have if it were not for my faith. Even in school, going to school, the presence of prayer, faith and God were there.
One of the most important prayers for me and my mother was the rosary. Part of that is that I have a great devotion to the Mother of God, because after that I am called. My name means “Mary’s heart.” People think that this name was given to me in the religious life, but I was baptized with this name.
Q: I’m from New Orleans, where I’ve had racism and discrimination, especially in the Catholic Church. My grandmother told me stories about how she had to sit right behind the church, behind the whites, and because of that, sometimes they were left without the Eucharist, and sometimes she was even denied the host. Have you had similar experiences or meetings related to church discrimination?
A: I did it during Communion at the altar railing when I was in the third grade. When it came time for Communion at school Mass, we lined up and stood on the altar steps because we were little, right? The priests have denied me the sacrament, and I always remember that day. The other girls in my class were all the same height, so for me not to understand it, it had to be because I was black.
Then, at the age of 13 or 14, my family and I were in a predominantly white church in Maryland, where my father’s family owned property. At that time, the last three pews were reserved for blacks, and the rest of the church was white. Everyone was sitting in the church, waiting for the Mass to begin, and a white couple entered with a child. There were no seats in front, so we had to get off the seats and take their seats.
Q: What does black Catholicism mean to you?
A: It means that I must first acknowledge that my culture, self-expression and identity are different than maybe a white person. Every person of color, or every African-American, is not the same as me. I’m a black Catholic. I have to look at what I came for, what I experienced and the impact it has on me. I’ve faced racism, but that doesn’t mean it has to destroy me. Courts like these helped me change and helped me look at things a little differently.
One word I’ve said a lot is intentionality. I feel that we need to be intentional and very specific about what we do and why we do it. We have to do our homework because what they sometimes find in situations, people will be marching there and they don’t even know why they are marching.
Another thing for the church that we have found in the past is that often people have always relied on bishops, priests, or leaders to talk about something that is wrong or unjust. To me, the church is God’s people, so the bank and I are as responsible and accountable as the top leader could be for what happens in our church.
Q: Black Catholics have fought for their identity and for their place / role in the church by fighting this question: How can we truly be true to ourselves and be Catholics? How can the Catholic Church continue to support the black Catholic community? What action steps would you like to see?
A: There are too many African Americans who do not have a sense of worth and are not encouraged. What I want to see is more responsibility and accountability from leaders who should be educated.
I also want our bishops and church leaders to empower people who are in the church. I want people to be willing to be vulnerable and admit that some of us are making mistakes. As a person of color, I need to have that real sense of empowerment and support.
I love the Roman Catholic Church and I will stay in it, but I will also complain when it does not do what I feel God is calling us to do.
What is the greatest lesson your Catholic faith has taught you?
I think the greatest thing I’ve learned is the love God has for people. I’m a person who likes to interact and connect with people. Our faith is built on love, so I believe that my faith has taught me to love everyone, to truly look to our God, to look to Jesus, and to see how much love I can give to others.
The only person you can really change is yourself. You can help and lead people to change, but real change can only come from within.