- “To My Darlings, the Oblates, Every Blessing”: The Reverend John T. Gillard, S.S.J., and the Oblate Sisters of Providence
Introduction: The Reverend Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., An Appreciation
I first became acquainted with Fr. Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., in 1993 when I read his seminal work, The History of Black Catholics in the United States. I was a graduate student at the time in search of a dissertation topic. It seemed to me that Fr. Cyprian had written this book with graduate students particularly in mind, because he indicated areas of black Catholic history that required further research and where promising archival materials existed. I considered his pronouncement, “There is no adequate history of any of the black Catholic sisterhoods ,” a commission—if not a mandate—to pursue my study of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. I contacted Fr. Cyprian by mail and he graciously suggested possible directions and sources for my research.
I first met Fr. Cyprian in person at the ACHA meeting in New York in 1997. When I revised my dissertation into a book manuscript, he agreed to serve as one of my readers, again offering valuable insights and suggestions. As a member of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium since 2001, I have had the pleasure of interacting with Fr. Cyprian during our annual meetings both intellectually and socially. Throughout our association, he has impressed me as a masterfully erudite scholar and a generous and supportive human being. Just as Fr. John T. Gillard, S.S.J., made a significant impact on the lives of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, Fr. Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., has enriched my life in several ways. I consider it a signal honor to contribute to his festschrift.
Professional dedication to religious life within the Roman Catholic Church and total commitment to ministering to black people had conjoined the Oblate Sisters of Providence and Rev. John T. Gillard, S.S.J., in a union of purpose before they ever met. [End Page 1] During the time of the American Great Depression, Gillard became the chaplain of the Oblate Sisters and interacted closely with their superiors general Mary Consuella Clifford, O.S.P. and Mary Teresa Shockley, O.S.P. The convergence of these three strong individuals in a hierarchical yet collaborative relationship ensured the potential for both dramatic conflicts as well as congruities when the brilliant, mercurial, devoted, and authoritarian Gillard encountered in sequence the formidable, visionary, eminently capable, and totally committed Mothers Consuella and Teresa.
Organized in Baltimore, Maryland in 1829 as a teaching sisterhood, the Oblate Sisters constituted the first community of African American women religious in the Catholic tradition. Throughout the antebellum years these pioneering sisters had relied on personal conviction of their religious vocations and the black lay community’s support to withstand both the occasionally tepid support of the American Catholic hierarchy and the frequent doubts of many white Americans, who considered black females in general women without virtue.1 From the 1860s into the twentieth century the Oblate Sisters not only assumed the additional responsibility of caring for orphans, they also branched out from Baltimore and established missions in Philadelphia, New Orleans, the Midwest, the Southeast, and the Caribbean. As the sisters pursued their original ministry of education, they encountered institutional obstacles to acquiring advanced degrees because the American Church initially denied these black sisters access to Catholic higher education.
When the Oblate Sisters attained their centennial year in 1929, the Archdiocese of Baltimore celebrated the occasion with appropriate pomp in the Baltimore Cathedral. A reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper perceptively identified the signal achievements which the Oblate centenary exemplified:
The sisters . . . comprise, no doubt, . . . perhaps the most significant contribution of the Negro woman to contrite religion. Their work is significant . . . in the fact that it has demonstrated without doubt that the Negro woman can rise to the exalted heights of complete self-abnegation and can consecrate every minute of her life to some unselfish cause . . . for one hundred years a group of race women have made of themselves a living sacrifice to the cause of Christianity and service . . . and the great Catholic church does...