- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

A member of the first Roman Catholic order of black nuns in the U.S. came to a Fairfax high school yesterday to share with students a story about racial struggles overcome by a firm foundation in faith.

“We were started by free black women in a slave-holding state,” said Sister Reginald Gerdes, a member of the Baltimore-based Oblate Sisters of Providence. “And we survived.”

Sister Gerdes, 73, spoke to more than 1,000 students at Paul VI Catholic High School as part of the school’s focus on Black History Month. She shared with a sea of predominantly white faces in the school auditorium how black Baltimore nuns overcame slavery and racism to accomplish their goals.

“I really would like to impact them to see what you can do against the odds and if you are determined,” Sister Gerdes said. “Our survival can be applied to everything.”

The history of the order, which was founded in 1829 and still is based in Baltimore, is intertwined with the history of blacks around the world. According to the order’s Web site, the sisters are the “first congregation of women religious of African descent.”

The order’s primary founder, Mother Mary Lange, fled the violence-ravaged country of Haiti — then known as the French colony of Saint-Domingue — for a better life in the United States.

What she found, however, was a country rife with racism and slavery.

“Baltimore was also one of the largest slave markets,” Sister Gerdes said, pointing out that slave pens once occupied the area where Camden Yards now stands.

Despite the obstacles, Mother Mary formed a French-speaking Catholic community of persons of color and established with another sister the St. Frances Academy in 1828.

The school was the first to educate black children in the U.S. and is still operating today, Sister Gerdes said, boasting a 90 percent college-entrance rate and an 86 percent retention rate.

One year later, with the help of a Sulpician father and four other sisters, Mother Mary — who the order is now trying to have canonized — created the Oblate Sisters to teach and care for black children.

The order once was disbanded by a slave-holding archbishop and has seen its members and missions fluctuate over the years. About 100 sisters still work with the poor and disadvantaged in orders in Baltimore, Buffalo, N.Y., Miami and Costa Rica.

“We hope that the children today learn how we’re all one in God’s eyes,” said Sister Veronica De Los Santos, a 70-year-old member of the order who also came to Paul VI yesterday. “We try to help the poor and the needy. This is our main goal.”

Students at Paul VI were receptive to the nuns’ message of racial equality and perseverance.

“I want to be a nun when I grow up,” said Danielle Kijewski, an 11th-grader at Paul VI and a member of the school’s multicultural club, which hosted the nuns. “It’s really, really inspiring how they persevered even when it seemed like everyone else was against them.”

Philip V. Robey, the school’s principal, said the nuns’ visit was an opportunity for students to see that the Catholic faith knows no racial boundaries.

“Catholic means universal,” Mr. Robey said. “It’s a big church, and sometimes our kids are a little insulated from that.”

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