Black Catholic Voices
Black Catholic Voices series: Sister Patricia Chappell on seeking solidarity and racial justice in society and Church
Dec 16, 2020
Sister Patricia Chappell, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, was interviewed as part of the Catholic Standard’s Black Catholic Voices series on Nov. 16, 2020 at the St. Ursula Chapel at the Archdiocese of Washington’s Pastoral Center in Hyattsville, Maryland. Sister Chappell served as president of the National Black Sisters’ Conference from 1996 to 2001 and received that group’s Harriet Tubman Award in 1997 in recognition of her advocacy for Black people through her ministry, in the spirit of Harriet Tubman, who led people to freedom through the Underground Railroad. Sister Chappell served as executive director of Pax Christi USA, the Catholic peace group, from 2011 to 2019, and now serves on the U.S. East West Leadership Team for the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. She was interviewed by Mark Zimmermann, the Catholic Standard’s editor.
How would you summarize your faith journey as a Catholic who is African American?
Sister Patricia Chappell – “In growing up in a Catholic family in New Haven, Connecticut, I’m a cradle Catholic, so I come from a tradition of Catholics well within my family. And so Catholicism was always a part of my faith journey. It continues to be part of my faith journey. It was through my grandparents and my parents that I came to love the faith, and that I’m sure that faith journey also has helped me in terms of choosing religious life. And so I come from a tight-knit, close family of believers, Catholic believers. And even though I struggled at one point with my faith, they still gave me the leeway to do that, but yet I found myself coming back to the Catholic faith. So, my family and relatives, that’s where it all began.
“And then I believe it was continued by me attending Catholic elementary school and Catholic high school. Catholic elementary school is where I met and fell in love with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the community of which I now am a member. And I certainly had women religious and priests in our parish church. St. Martin de Porres Parish, that certainly was always about empowering people and always about making the faith real. So that when people came on Sunday, or whatever, they received some message of liberation. They received some message of, no matter how difficult times were, God is able and that God will always see us through. And so, I contribute and am grateful for all of that, for my family, my friends, the men and women religious who also helped nurture my faith.”
What have you learned from the witness of faith of other Black Catholics, how has that shaped your life?
Sister Patricia Chappell – “What I have learned particularly from other Black Catholics is the steadfastness of our faith, that no matter what has come our way, God has never, ever abandoned us, and even though we go through trials and tribulations, there is the sense that God’s love is unconditional and that God will provide us all that we need in the right time and in the right place. And so there’s that sense of resilience, there’s that sense of faithfulness, there’s that sense of, ‘It’s going to be all right,’ there’s the sense of celebration, there’s a sense of thankfulness for all that God has done, is doing, and will continue to do.”
What have you learned from the witness of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur?
Sister Patricia Chappell – “What I have learned from members of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and also the National Black Catholic Sisters’ Conference that I’ve been a member of, is that as women religious we are here to serve. For us in particular, as Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, we are here to serve those men, women, and children who are most abandoned, who are powerless, and we are there to be in solidarity with them. We are there to walk side-by-side with them. We are there to pray with them, and we are with them to advocate for social justice and to advocate for economic reform, and that we are there with them to be the Good News of what the Catholic social teachings calls us to.”
Sister Patricia Chappell (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)
Are there instances of racism that you have experienced in society or the Catholic Church that remain painful memories?
Sister Patricia Chappell – “Certainly I would say that (in) my formation, even within my own religious community, I experienced both overt and covert acts of racism. I mean growing up also in New Haven, Connecticut, there was, and in some respects continues to be, a racial divide. So, all my life, all my life, I certainly have been exposed to systemic racism, and yet I’ve also learned how not only to survive, but how to live through that and also how to thrive, so that those young men and women who come behind me, hopefully, I will be able to make it just a little brighter and a little better for them on their journey.
“There have been times when I have visited some of our convents that have been in the suburbs, and I have arrived perhaps late at night, and they are in predominantly white communities, and so I have been pulled over by the police wanting to know where I was going, who I was. So those certainly are examples.
“I have unfortunately had the experience of even going to our convents and knocking on the door, ringing the doorbell, and the sisters not sure of who I was, and even though I had my Notre Dame cross on, they were still suspicious about who this Black woman was knocking on the convent door.
“I certainly have been in stores, I certainly have been followed on many occasions, during many times. When some of the sisters and I, when we were looking for apartments to live in, I would make the calls, and we would show up at the apartment complex or at the house and then realize all of a sudden that the apartment was rented simply based on the fact that I was African American and Black. And that was clear to me and the other sisters as well.”
What is your reaction to the nationwide demonstrations for racial justice that have happened since this spring in the wake of unarmed men and women of color being killed by police?
Sister Patricia Chappell – “Well, I certainly think that it was and continues to be a wake-up call. I think systemic racism has been embedded in every single one of the systems that exist in the United States. And so we have seen how racial prejudice, plus the misuse of power, has impacted all of our social systems, whether it’s economic, political, legal, and unfortunately also our beloved institutional Church.
“And so with the demonstrations that have taken place, it basically has been, and continues to be, a call that we as Church, we as people of God, need to be able to have honest conversations about how we are all impacted by systemic racism and how racism continues to play itself out, and how it really hinders all of us from being in right relationships with each other.
“And so therefore, I believe the rallies and demonstrations, particularly on behalf of the Millennials and young people, are saying America is better than that, that there should be equal access for all people and not just based on the color of one’s skin. So I’ve been pleased with the demonstrations quite honestly, (and) I participated in the demonstrations myself, because I do believe it is what we are called to do as people of God.”
Sister Patricia Chappell (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)
People of color – African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans – have been hardest hit by the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. What does this say about our country, and what should our country do about this?
Sister Patricia Chappell – “I think what it says about our country is that the very foundation of our country has been rooted in systemic racism, oppression, and marginalization, and people have suffered because of that. And so what we need to do in some respects is to go back to the Catholic social teachings. The Catholic social teachings basically say that every single individual is to be respected, every single individual should have access to that which will allow him or her, not only to survive, but to thrive, and that every single person has gifts and skills that they bring.
“And we have to, as Church, as people, we have to find a way to embrace that (teaching), and to acknowledge that sinfulness of systemic racism, but also to say that we are more than that. You know, we are made in the image and likeness of our good and gracious God, and that’s how we should start acting and behaving.
“And you can begin to see institutions, our religious institutions as well as other systems, beginning to say, we have to do better. Meaning we need to begin to look at our systems and institutions and to get a better idea of whose voices are not included, whose voices are left out, and ways of bringing those voices to the table so we can create equity and inclusion for everyone.”
Cardinal Gregory has noted that while the nation confronts the coronavirus, it must also address the virus of racism. What do you think the Catholic Church should do as an institution to combat racism?
Sister Patricia Chappell – “Well, I think first of all the Catholic Church, the institutional Catholic Church, needs to ask for forgiveness. We know that the Catholic Church in the United States was one of the largest slave stakeholders. We know that. We know that many of our institutions within the Catholic Church actually owned slaves. And so to admit to that sinfulness, first and foremost, and then to acknowledge what must we do in order to repair that breach. And in order to do that, we then have to look at all the systems that are impacted or make up the Catholic Church, and begin to put resources and personnel in those places that can help uplift and build the Black and Brown Catholic community.”
What do you think individual Catholics should do to combat racism?
Sister Patricia Chappell – “I think certainly people in the pew, first of all, we can get to know each other. I mean in many of our churches now, we have churches that are multicultural, we have churches that are multi-ethnic, and I think what we have to begin to do in those places is to have conversation and dialogue with each other, to talk about the oppression and the systemic racism and to be able to have those conversations with integrity and to be able to embrace the contributions and the gifts that the people in the pew bring to the Catholic Church.
“And so we need to celebrate all our ethnicities. We need to find ways of having those conversations with each other and have those conversations of how together do we build the beloved community. (For example,) having Sundays where we bring different foods or we can come together and break bread together and also be able to learn about each other’s culture or to learn about what we have in common as opposed to what keeps us separated and apart.”
How have you kept the faith, both your Catholic faith and your faith for our country, over the years, despite this “virus” of racism that has infected both, and what gives you hope for a better future for our Church and our country?
Sister Patricia Chappell – “What has sustained my faith is basically what I have learned from my ancestors, and that spirituality and faith is what will always be there. And so always trusting and believing in the goodness of God, trusting and believing that God has created me in the image and likeness of our Savior, and that I am not junk, but that I am precious in the eyes of God. And so I stand on the shoulders of those men and women, my ancestors who have gone before me, who were steeped in their faith, so that no matter what they went through, whether it was lynching, or Jim Crow, or voter suppression, there was that sense, that it is not to be that way, that every single individual is embodied with God’s goodness. So, in a sense, that’s what has sustained my faith.
“In terms of the movement, the struggle, if you will, I have seen good men and women who believe that justice is for everyone. I have seen good men and women participate in non-violent demonstrations. I have seen good men and women call for policy reform. I have seen good men and women push for just legislation. I have seen those good role models, whether it’s been people like my grandparents or whether it’s men and women like our beloved John Lewis, who, as we both know, talked about keeping your hand to the plow and being part of ‘good trouble.’ Those movements have kept me going.
“What I am hopeful about is young people. I really believe that the Millennials are young people who are making connections. I believe Millennials are the young people who believe in equality, who believe in equity, and who are willing to demonstrate that and to share that. I’m impressed with what I see in terms of the Millennials wanting even to take things further than what we have been able to do.”
Sister Patricia Chappell, then the executive director of Pax Christi USA, spoke in July 2017 at the opening of the 12th National Black Catholic Congress in Orlando, Florida. The theme of the congress was drawn from words of the prophet Micah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me: Act justly, love goodness and walk humbly.” (CNS photo/Jean Gonzalez, Florida Catholic)
What is your reaction to Pope Francis elevating Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory to the College of Cardinals, making him the first African American cardinal in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States – what does that mean to you, and what do you think it means to the nation’s Black Catholics?
Sister Patricia Chappell – “Honestly, it is good news. I certainly rejoice. It’s also a very historic moment. For those of us who are African American Catholics, to have the first African American cardinal named, is just wonderful.
“I think that Pope Francis also particularly understood that there is much healing that certainly needs to take place with the Catholic Church in the United States, and so I think he’s made a wise decision in calling forth a holy man, in calling forth a man who is not perfect, but a man who really listens to the people, a man who is steeped in his faith, and a man who will journey with the people. So I’m just blessed, I’m grateful. I personally know Archbishop Gregory, and I’m elated, I’m happy, I want to support him. In particular, I will keep him close in prayer.
“What I know about Archbishop (now Cardinal) Gregory is his ability to listen, his ability to be able to listen to diverse opinions and to try to find the common threads that somehow can unite people. And yet, he’s also a man of integrity, he’s a man also rooted in prayer and his faith, so he doesn’t back away from his beliefs. What I have seen him do is to try to bring people together, to look at how do we make it better, how do we bring the Good News to all God’s people.”