Home Black Catholic Ministry Remembering Sister Mary Greta Jupiter, an educator, principal, and courageous leader: Shannen...

Remembering Sister Mary Greta Jupiter, an educator, principal, and courageous leader: Shannen Dee Williams


2021 saw the passing of some of the nation’s most important leaders, thinkers, writers and freedom fighters of the modern era.

Among the Catholic Church’s moral and educational giants who died was 73-year-old Sister Mary Greta Jupiter.

Devastation caused by Hurricane Ida delayed her funeral Mass and burial. But on Sept. 15, the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans laid their former congregational leader to rest in historic St. Louis No. 2 Cemetery.

Sister Jupiter’s passing on Aug. 28 marked another irreplaceable loss in the church’s dwindling community of African American nuns. Like all who knew Sister Greta and experienced her quiet brilliance and gentle kindness, I was devastated by her death.

Born Gwendolyn Mary Jupiter at Charity Hospital in New Orleans on Sept. 20, 1947, Sister Greta was a cradle Catholic and a proud daughter of the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, where she was raised in the historically Black St. David Catholic Church.

Shannen Dee Williams

The fourth of eight children born to Ulysses Pere Jupiter, a Pullman porter turned gas station owner, and Imelda Oubre Jupiter, a homemaker and part-time rectory cook, Sister Greta was educated by her order at St. Mary’s Academy. After her high school graduation in 1965, she entered the Sisters of the Holy Family, professing her first vows in 1968 and final vows in 1973.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry education from Xavier University of Louisiana in 1972 and a master’s degree in education from the University of New Orleans in 1976. She completed additional graduate work in educational administration at Loyola University New Orleans, Tulane University and California State University at Long Beach.

Over the course of her distinguished career as a science educator and school principal, Sister Greta taught at and led her order’s Regina Caeli High School in Compton, California, and her alma mater, St. Mary’s Academy. From 1998 to 2002, she served as the associate superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Before being elected to serve as her order’s assistant congregational leader in 2010, Sister Greta played a leading role in preserving Black-administered Catholic education following Hurricane Katrina’s destruction by founding the MAX School, which temporarily combined the city’s three historically Black Catholic high schools.

In 2014, Sister Greta assumed the leadership of the nation’s second oldest African American sisterhood and helped to guide the community in their continued efforts to rebuild following Hurricane Katrina.

Those who knew Sister Greta would tell you she never sought the spotlight or ambitiously pursued leadership roles. Yet, she shined in those positions, leaving an indelible mark on the church and epitomizing the meaning of servant leadership.

I first met Sister Greta in 2015 at the funeral Mass for Father Cyprian Davis at St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana. I introduced myself as the historian writing the book on Black nuns in the United States who had visited her order’s archive in 2009.

One year later, Sister Greta, as a member of the planning committee of annual meeting of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious invited me to speak at the Atlanta gathering. Without her help, I am not sure I would have been able to make the connections and secure the archival access needed to finish my book.

We met again in 2016 in New Orleans before Sister Greta’s cancer diagnosis. During my stay at the Holy Family motherhouse, I finally interviewed her. Afterward, she took me out to dinner and on a tour of her beloved Lower Ninth Ward. On our way, I witnessed what I consider to be the most important dimension of Sister Greta’s moral leadership.

En route to the restaurant, Sister Greta and I saw a man attempting to force a screaming and resisting adolescent girl into his car.

Without hesitation, Sister Greta, who was wearing her veil, stopped her vehicle and prepared to take action. I quickly searched the car for something with which to fight the girl’s perceived attacker and protect Sister Greta, if necessary.

While the situation was resolved without any violence, I still recall how Sister Greta’s bravery and unflinching readiness to help this child emboldened me to act as well.

Sister Greta never used the word feminist or womanist to describe herself in our conversations. Yet, when confronted with a potential attack on a native daughter of New Orleans, Sister Greta did not hesitate to intervene and protect her, and I have never forgotten it.

As the 21st century progresses, it pains me that the church will lose the last generation of African American sisters who grew up during Jim Crow and fought to dismantle some of the nation’s most difficult racial and gender barriers.

These women carry the stories and faithfulness of generations of Black Catholics who made a way out of absolutely no way in their racially segregated and white-dominated church.

Sister Greta’s instinct to defend Black girlhood and innocence was rooted firmly in the intellectual, educational and spiritual traditions of her historically African American sisterhood and their ministry to society’s most vulnerable.

When I last saw Sister Greta in 2018, shortly after her illness forced her to step down from congregational leadership, she was all smiles and encouragement. That is the Sister Greta that I will remember — fearless and grace-filled in the face of an uncertain future.

While there is much more to say about Sister Mary Greta Jupiter, right now, I want to be sure that the church knows that she existed and lived a tremendous life of service, leadership and courage.

The Catholic Church is so much better because Sister Greta answered God’s call, and I remain ever grateful that I can count myself among those fortunate enough to have experienced a piece of her grace.

– – –

Shannen Dee Williams is a cradle Catholic and an associate professor of history at the University of Dayton. She is the author of “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle,” which will be published by Duke University Press on May 27, 2022. Follow her on Twitter at @BlkNunHistorian.