2020 was a year of monumental losses for the nation’s community of women religious.
Among them was the passing of 88-year-old Oblate Sister of Providence, Mary Reginald Gerdes.
On Sept. 7, Sister Gerdes, a former leader of Baltimore’s St. Frances Academy, the nation’s oldest historically Black Catholic school, and longest-serving archivist of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, died of heart failure at her order’s motherhouse in Arbutus, Maryland.
In a racially and economically tumultuous year that saw a significant rise in calls for the church to acknowledge and make reparations for its largely unreconciled practices of slavery and segregation, the loss of Sister Gerdes, and her expertise in African American Catholic history, was especially wrenching.
That is, of course, for those who knew Sister Gerdes’ story and all that she did to recover, preserve and disseminate the history of the church’s Black faithful and their widely overlooked roles in the making of U.S. Catholicism.
Born Althea Mary Gerdes on Sept. 3, 1932, Sister Mary Reginald was a proud member of New Orleans’ longstanding Afro-Creole and Black Catholic communities. Her mother, Elmira (née Raymond) Gerdes was a homemaker, and her father Louis Gerdes owned a roofing company that served Black and white households and businesses in the Crescent City’s famed French Quarter.
As a member of one of New Orleans’ largest Black Catholic parishes, Corpus Christi, and a pupil of historically white Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for elementary and high school, Sister Gerdes grew up in a vibrant community of faithfulness and was shielded from the most dehumanizing humiliations forced upon Black faithful in their racially segregated church for much of her childhood.
Nonetheless, her journey, like most Black Catholics who came of age during the civil rights and Black power eras, would not be free from struggle against segregation and exclusion.
In 1952, Sister Gerdes opted to leave New Orleans and enter the historically Black Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore. Three decades earlier, her aunt, Mother Martin (Cecile) Lalonier, in response to the exclusionary admissions policies of local white sisterhoods and deep South segregation had done the same.
Over the next 30 years, Sister Gerdes, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Marillac College and master’s degree in education from Duke University, became a well-respected biology teacher, school leader and champion of Black freedom and educational excellence.
During the civil rights movement, she participated in local desegregation campaigns while stationed at her order’s Immaculate Conception School in Charleston, South Carolina.
In the 1970s, Sister Gerdes with the support of a diversity of sisters, OSP alumni and state officials played a leading role in helping to reopen and secure the financial future of Baltimore’s St. Frances Academy, her order’s first school, which had closed in 1972 due to desegregation and lack of archdiocesan support.
After retiring from teaching and school administration in the 1980s, Sister Gerdes began her “second career” as her order’s full-time archivist, where she undertook a monumental campaign to organize the OSP’s invaluable repository of records, collect oral histories and research the life of her community’s foundress, Mother Mary Lange, in support of her canonization cause.
In 1988, Sister Gerdes published a seminal article in the “U.S. Catholic Historian,” documenting her order’s pioneering role in founding Black Catholic schools during slavery and in the immediate decades following emancipation when much of the former slaveholding church abandoned the Black Catholic community.
Sister Gerdes also taught African American heritage at the Community College of Baltimore County, wrote a regular Black history column for The Catholic Review, and joined the Maryland Humanities Speaker’s Bureau, offering dynamic lectures on the experiences of Black nuns in the U.S. slave society across the state.
While Sister Gerdes’s name may not be as recognizable as that of the late Father Cyprian Davis, the church’s most prolific historian of the Black Catholic experience, or the late Father Peter Hogan, the longtime administrator of the Josephite Archives in Baltimore, she was undoubtedly one of the church’ most important archivists and chroniclers of the American Catholic experience in the 20th and early 21st centuries.
Like so many members of her congregation, who pioneered the teaching of Black and Black Catholic history in the U.S. church, Sister Gerdes understood that the history of Black nuns and the larger Black Catholic community fundamentally mattered. Moreover, her herculean efforts in organizing and safeguarding her congregation’s archive made it possible for scores of academic and independent researchers to unlock countless secrets about the American Catholic past documented in their records.
As we move into the new year confronted with the enduring challenges of racism buttressed by miseducation and misinformation, I cannot help but to consider how much more difficult the fight ahead would be without the intellectual and archival activism of Sister Gerdes.
In face of scholarly silence, erasure and outright lies about her order and the wider African American Catholic community, she chose to fight back with historical truth telling, education and unwavering grace.
And for that and so much more, the church should be forever grateful.
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Shannen Dee Williams is the Albert Lepage assistant professor of history at Villanova University and author of the Catholic News Service column, “The Griot’s Cross.”