Black Catholic History is an Integral, Radical Part of Our History

Dr. Shannen Dee Williams standing at a lectern Delivering a talk

Dr. Shannen Dee Williams, Assistant Professor of History at Villanova University

On March 16, Catholic Ministry, the Department of History, along with several other co-sponsors hosted Dr. Shannen Dee Williams for a talk entitled “Black Catholic Historical Truth-Telling as an Anti-Racist Practice.” 

In her talk, Dr. Williams discussed the role of Catholics in both promoting racial equality and buttressing anti-Black institutions. She also stressed that “Black history is Catholic history, and Catholic history is Black history.” Unfortunately, however, these two historical narratives are often presented as separate with the linkages between them obscured.

Though she is a Black Catholic herself, Dr. Williams spent much of her upbringing unaware of the significant historical role of Black Catholic women. In fact, the only Black nun she knew of during her childhood was Sister Mary Clarence — a fictional character played by Whoopi Goldberg in the film Sister Act. Dr. Williams says that Black Catholics and Black nuns more specifically have been invisibilized in Black history, Catholic history, and American history, and it’s time we bring them to the fore.

In her research on Black nuns, Dr. Williams “bore witness to a profoundly unfamiliar history that disrupts and revises much of what has been said about the U.S. Catholic experience and the place of Black people within it.” She has found that the Church was “deeply culpable in the histories of white supremacy,” and that it’s time that Catholics and people at Catholic institutions such as Georgetown reckon with the Church’s role in chattel slavery and segregation.

She refuted several myths about the relationship between Blackness and Catholicism, including the idea that the history of Black Catholics in America is “inconsequential” and that the Church was a reluctant participant in institutions such as chattel slavery. To these, she noted that the history of slavery in the present-day United States begins with St. Augustine, a Spanish Catholic settlement in Florida. “The fact remains that the Catholic Church was the first and largest corporate slaveholder in the Americas,” she said. She notes that white Catholics were never “innocent bystanders in the story of slavery.” In fact, Roger Taney, the infamous Supreme Court Justice who decided the Dred Scott case (Dred Scott was an enslaved Black man who filed suit against his owner for his own freedom), was the first Catholic to sit on the bench.

She quoted Sister Loretta Theresa, a Black nun, who said “The Catholic Church wouldn’t be Catholic if it wasn’t for us.” Dr. Williams ended by saying this: “When we are confronted with a silent past, the most radical thing that we can ever do is to tell a story that was never meant to be told.” In this sense, telling the truth about Black Catholic history is an anti-racist practice.

Dr. Williams is the Albert Lepage Assistant Professor of History at Villanova University and is currently working on her first book, entitled Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Sisters and the Long African American Freedom Struggle. You can follow her on Twitter at @BlkNunHistorian.

by Jordan Brown. 

Jordan is a senior in the College, majoring in Justice and Peace Studies with minors in Disability + African American Studies.

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Our Cannonball Moment: Reflections From Athletics

Zoom window, screenshot. Participant images arranged in a grid pattern.

Dr. Maya Ozery, Executive Director of the Cooper Leadership Program (top left), and Tony Mazurkiewicz, Chaplain for Athletics (second from top left), leading a community gathering.

Headshot, Tony MazurkiewiczTony Mazurkiewicz, Chaplain for Athletics
During my third day of a 10-day quarantine as a result of exposure to a student-athlete who tested positive for Covid-19, I received a phone call from Mike Callahan, the head coach for the Georgetown University sailing team. With 12 national championships and 87 All Americans during his 22 years at the helm, Coach Callahan called to check in on my physical status as part of Redeploy Georgetown. Without an opportunity to lead his team on the water this spring, Coach Callahan stepped in where needed and embodied the athletic department’s values of excellence and integrity while also deepening our university’s commitment to cura personalis.

Given challenges like Coach Callahan’s and the countless others our athletic department continues to endure this year, Dr. Maya Ozery, the Executive Director of the Cooper Leadership Program, and I have been creating opportunities for Ignatian reflection and self-examination for our department. During the past two months, 15 Georgetown Athletic Department coaches and staff participated in two Leadership and Ignatian Spirituality Community Gatherings, with a third gathering planned for April 21.

At the beginning of each community gathering, the coaches and staff are invited to notice the parallels between the ‘cannonball moment’ (the traumatic moment that altered the course of St. Ignatius’ life) for St. Ignatius almost 500 years ago and the year of uncertainty and loss within the athletic program, our nation, and our world. A short presentation about the Ignatian themes of consolation and desolation follows, setting the stage for participants to look back on the past year through this lens and notice what they may have learned about themselves. Then, after reflecting on and sharing what is ‘most alive in them’ in the current moment, the participants conclude the gathering by considering how the community could help support them and how they could help support the community.

After our first two gatherings, I feel inspired and renewed by the participants’ willingness to enter into this process of reflection along with their self-awareness, resilience, and commitment to being their best selves as a path to stepping further into what it means to be people for others.

Here’s an opportunity to hear from them.

Headshot, Diana PulupaDiana Pulupa, Director of Athletics Communications & Creative Services Participating in the Leadership and Ignatian Spirituality Community Gathering was an eye-opening experience for me. I didn’t entirely know what I was getting into but when I found myself engaging with my colleagues and learning how our perspectives are aligned but, in my opinion, more importantly, how we saw things differently. Shining the light on new points of view and also doing a mental check-in was a breath of fresh air in a roller coaster of a year. Working one-on-one with some people who I considered coworkers and others who I have become friends with over the years, allowed me to feel more like a member of a team or family than I had prior to that moment. I would recommend it to anyone who is considering becoming a more active participant and leader in their department or workplace.

Headshot, Monique WhiteMonique White, Softball, Assistant Coach
The Leadership and Ignatian Spirituality Community Gathering provided the space for me to step out of my daily reality of to-do lists, routines, and stresses and into a space of internal reflection. It was refreshing to hit pause and check-in with myself and my colleagues on a genuine and intimate level. I enjoyed seeing people for who they are and not just for what they do. My biggest takeaway was remembering to give myself permission to prioritize a consistent self-care routine because when I do, I’m able to enter spaces a better version of myself.


Headshot, Megan ZarrielloMegan Zariello, Swimming & Diving, Assistant Coach
Recently, I participated in the Leadership and Ignatian Spirituality Community Gathering. As someone who has little experience of looking inward, much less so doing that through a spiritual lens, I was a bit skeptical before getting on the Zoom call. However, right from the start Tony Mazurkiewicz and Maya Ozery created an environment of inclusion and trust. The meeting allowed coworkers to talk through certain events over the past year through an Ignatian lens, and look inward on where we are now and where we want to be. As a coach who is pulled in many different directions, we often don’t take the time to think and truly ask ourselves the hard questions. For me, the biggest question asked during the meeting was “what is most alive in you right now?” As someone who can get lost in the ‘grind,’ this meeting allowed me to slow down and think about what gets me out of bed every day. I do believe that we all need to be doing that more often. Doing so can open up the thought process in order to consider the questions, “where am I now?” and “where do I see myself going from here?”

Headshot, Paul AllbrightPaul Albright, Women’s Rowing, Assistant Coach
Simply put, my experience attending the Leadership and Ignatian Spirituality Community Gathering was great. It provided an overdue opportunity to connect with other members of the department that I do not work directly with or have not stayed in touch with over the past year as we continue to work remotely. What’s more, we (especially coaches) are wired to put the needs of our student-athletes before ourselves with our primary focus being how to best support them through these uncertain times. However, an event like this gathering provided some much-needed ‘care for the caretakers’ and created space for each of us to reflect on our own experiences during the pandemic and, in turn, this will allow us to better serve our teams. I look forward to participating in similar events in the future so that I can continue to fill my personal ‘spiritual-mindfulness toolbox’ and stay better connected with my peers in the athletic department.

Headshot, Sam GreilSam Greil, Assistant Athletics Director for Equipment Operations
Sharing my personal moments, thoughts, and beliefs is not something that I am entirely comfortable doing with my colleagues, especially those that I do not interact with on a daily basis, but after attending the Leadership and Ignatian Spirituality Community Gatherings hosted by Tony Mazurkiewicz and Maya Ozery, I now feel a stronger sense of community within the Georgetown Athletics Department.

I felt that it was extremely important to talk with different members of the Athletics staff during these crazy times. Some are able to come into the office and work directly with student-athletes, while others are working completely remotely and haven’t interacted with a colleague outside of Zoom meetings. These last 12 months have had a different impact on students as well as staff and that was telling after this gathering. Being able to look inward and express your feelings, while also listening to someone express theirs was an intimate experience. You don’t typically have those conversations in the office, but we were able to because of the safe space that Tony and Maya created.

The consolation and desolation exercise brought about a new perspective of what this pandemic has caused, outside of the spread of the virus. I had never really thought of talking about how I have felt during this last year, but it was eye-opening to talk with another staff member about having the ability to take a step back from work and focus on yourself and your relationships with loved ones. I truly enjoyed this time to talk on an intimate level and realize how important it is to take a look inward in a world that is constantly moving and changing.

Headshot, Chris RayChris Ray, Assistant Athletic Director for Compliance
Participating in the Leadership and Ignatian Spirituality Community Gathering this past month gave me the opportunity to reflect on life. As we have all felt stress and anxiety in this extremely trying year, the opportunity to view these challenges through the lens of Ignatian Spirituality helped alter my perspective to one of more appreciation. The gathering also was an opportunity to share with others in the Georgetown community about something other than our usual day-to-day work interactions.

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Practicing Stillness, Silence and Simplicity in Virtual Community

Zoom meeting screenshot A grid with headshots of 13 people Each person is holding a copy of John Main Daily Readings book

JMC Spring 2021 Leaders Launch with the John Main Daily Readings book

At the John Main Center for Meditation and Interreligious Dialogue (JMC), we customarily offer two meditative readings as bookends to our silent mantra-based meditation. Echoing the tradition of the ancient Christian desert mothers and fathers, spiritual seekers, like us, retreated from the city and marketplace to receive ‘a word’ from these wisdom figures to help navigate the storms of the inner and public life. 

Last spring, as we all withdrew from the energetic landscape of campus life into the simplified solitude of our cell-like squares on Zoom, this global pandemic exposed all levels of our personal frailties alongside societal ailments of racial and economic injustices. Evermore urgently, we sought means to restore, engage, redress and heal. Early on, Fr. Richard Rohr, O.F.M, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, spoke such ‘a word’:

We are in the midst of a highly teachable moment…We have a chance to go deep, and to go broad.  Globally, we are in this together. Depth is being forced on us by great suffering, which as I like to say, always leads to great love.

Throughout each season since March 2020, the JMC quickly adapted to the community’s needs from meditating on campus in the refuge of the Anne Marie Becraft Hall, the McDonough School of Business and the Harris Building to offering 15-20 virtual meditations every week continuously and without break — a true testament to the steadfastness of the JMC practitioners and mostly students leaders who host these sessions. 

As a diverse community of students, faculty, staff, alumni and JMC members beyond Georgetown, we experienced the solace of meditating together to allay the effects of  “Zoom fatigue,” isolation, anxiety, and stress. Called upon to support community-building in these trying times, the JMC was invited to host and reach out to as many as twenty-five new cross-campus groups as a valuable resource.  Like others hesitant to add yet another Zoom meeting, Rashan Prailow noticed the JMC online meditations actually strengthened his commitment to sharing this practice as a JMC leader at the MSB and helped create the new Black Hoya Meditation community:

Initially, I was worried that the virtual environment would negatively impact my experience and overall practice. Nevertheless, I decided to stick with my commitment and it has been the best decision I’ve made at Georgetown. The pandemic as well as social uprising across our country has caused a deep level of disturbance within me as a person and specifically as a black man. Thanks to my JMC virtual family…the impact on my personal and spiritual wellbeing during this time has been transformative.

In this spirit of hospitality, the JMC welcomes all participants to partake in post-meditation conversations as well as new affinity groups which provide a safe space for community. This contributes to a sense of belonging and purpose and reinforces the contemporary relevance of wisdom from the ancient Christian, Dharmic, and other contemplative traditions. Holding this crucial space for Cura Personalis, JMC participants also affirm that meditation has helped them stay mentally and spiritually grounded, deepened their dedication to the meditation practice, and allowed them to engage meaningfully in current events impacting their lives.

Long-time JMC student meditator and new JMC alumni leader, Ashton Garriott characterized the significance of the online presence as “finding stillness in the storm.” He further reflected:

…meditation has a unique way of allowing people to grapple with the uncertainty, discomfort, and turmoil this year has witnessed, from a global pandemic to a renewed movement for racial justice. Though meditation does not make that uncertainty go away, it allows those who practice to sit with it, breathe into it, and observe it, all while sharing a dedicated and intentional time and space with others in the community.

This “highly teachable moment” without doubt has helped foster a new generation of contemplative leaders.  Invited into this community and practice of stillness, silence and simplicity, students, in particular, discover meditation as both viable for and integral to the work of healing what is fragmented within ourselves and throughout our world.

by Lisa Directo Davis 

Lisa is the program director for the John Main Center for Meditation and Interreligious Dialogue.

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Pandemic Provides Former Student-Athlete Opportunity for RCIA and Connection to Her Grandmother

Author standing in Dahlgren Chapel Her father standing on her left Her uncle standing on her right

Erin Nebbia (center) with her father, Stephan Nebbia (left) and her uncle and sponsor, Thomas Nebbia (right).

While COVID-19 brought many terrible things, there was a silver lining for me. The pandemic provided me the time and opportunity that I had been waiting for to be able to go through the RCIA (The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) process. 

Because I was a college athlete, I unfortunately never had the time necessary to commit to the program. I chose to participate in the RCIA process this year because being confirmed in the Catholic Church is something that I have been wanting to do for a long time. 

Another important reason that confirmation was so important to me is because of my grandmother, Joan Ann Nebbia-Wagner (pictured below). I chose my confirmation name after her because I know religion and faith were always something that guided her and was really important to her. She was always kind and loving but also strong and determined. I’ve always looked up to her. She was a big influence on my family’s lives. 

My grandmother had two sons, my dad and my uncle. She always did her best for them and for all of us, even though she didn’t always have a lot to give. She always worked hard and cared for others. In particular, when my uncle was younger, he was diagnosed with a glioblastoma of the brain. No doctor in the New Jersey region would even attempt to perform surgery because they did not think he would survive. My grandmother was always very determined, and she never gave up on fighting for her family. She was a single mother and a registered nurse. She spent every dollar she had researching and traveling to find a doctor that would consider performing the surgery on her son. 

Grandmother sitting on a bench Her son standing behind her on her right Her other son seated on the bench beside her on the left

Joan Ann Nebbia-Wagner pictured with her sons, Thomas (left) and Stephan (right).

Because of her efforts and her faith, my uncle is here today. Because of her, my sister and I had the opportunity to grow up with both her and my uncle in our lives. Because of my grandmother, Joan, my uncle was able to participate in my confirmation ceremony as my sponsor. 

I believe the RCIA process brought me closer to my grandmother even though she is no longer with us. I am really grateful to everyone at Georgetown University who guided me and supported me through this process, especially my peers, my family, and Michelle Siemietkowski, the Catholic chaplain for spiritual formation.

by Erin Nebbia. Erin is a second-year law student at the Georgetown University Law Center.

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Finding God in (Virtual) Spiritual Formation

a screenshot of a Zoom meeting screen with 6 students

After participating in the Loyola retreat these students formed a small faith-sharing group.

When the pandemic struck last spring and all of our in-person retreats were canceled, I naturally felt a deep sense of loss for our students. While I acknowledged and honored my own feelings of sadness, however, I also tried not to let those feelings spiral me down into despair or hopelessness. Instead, I turned to God.

So, what are we going to do, Lord? What do you have in mind?

I sensed the consoling feeling that “God is God,” and nothing can separate us from that truth. Nothing – not even a pandemic – can keep us from God’s love and creativity.

And so, with God’s help, I got to work. I turned to our wonderful Catholic retreat student leaders and asked for their ideas. How can we still run retreats virtually? The leaders imagined wonderful ways to mirror what we do on our in-person retreats, such as student and chaplain talks, small faith-sharing groups, guided Ignatian prayer, games, and even “Emmaus walks,” where students are paired in groups of two and walk together connected through Facetime. They walk and talk from wherever they may be, and share their stories of faith.

As spring 2020 unfolded, we continued virtually our God’s Light and Love six-week retreat in daily life (where students pray with scripture daily and meet weekly on Zoom with their spiritual directors), offered a shortened version of the Loyola retreat, and rolled out a special evening of reflection with Mass for our seniors. Throughout all of these newly configured retreats, my sense that “God is God” was sustained, and that feeling strengthened me to keep going.

Once August came, I offered a virtual weekend retreat just for the student retreat leaders. The theme was accompaniment: how is God accompanying us through our joys and struggles, and how are we called to accompany one another? A real gift of this retreat was providing space to process feelings that the pandemic had stirred up, such as isolation and anxiety, and ultimately to bring those feelings to God. In the end, students felt hopeful and encouraged, knowing God is with us through everything.

With renewed hope, we started planning Loyola for first-years and Manresa for all class years, as well as our God’s Light and Love retreat in daily life. We had weekly student leader team meetings, game nights to deepen the sense of community, and even post-retreat reunions, all on Zoom. Sure, there were challenges, such as not being able to share s’mores in person by the fireplace at the beautiful Calcagnini Contemplative Center, and navigating the nuances of Zoom, but the joys far outweighed the challenges.

Some of the joys, for instance, include students sharing their faith stories, praying the Examen and other forms of Ignatian prayer, sharing Mass together even on Zoom, living with renewed hope and joy, and saying these retreats are providing a real sense of community at a time when community is so desperately needed.

With a grateful heart, my vision for this semester is to keep doing what we are doing and offer virtual retreats and reunions for students to grow in faith, hope, and love.

By Michelle Siemietkowski, C’92, G’98. Michelle is the Catholic Chaplain for Spiritual Formation

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