Sister Cora Marie Billings – Philadelphia’s Pioneering Black Nun

Villanova launched Black History Month on Feb 4 at 8PM in the St. Thomas of Villanova Church. Continuing our theme of great Black Women in the Civil Rights Movement, Sister Cora Marie Billings gave a talk that opened many eyes to the difficulties of pioneering change in the American Roman Catholic Church. She did so in a way that only someone with her clout, wit, and simultaneously soft-spoken and forthright manner could. Born the only child in a Black Catholic family of a desegregationist legacy, Sister Cora went on to a prosperous career in furthering the fight for freedom, desegregation, and the rights of women in America through the Catholic church, and she continues doing that work today.

Sister Cora Marie Billings was the granddaughter of John Aloysius Lee, Sr., and the first Black recipient of the Vercelli Award from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Holy Name Society, a national confraternity. He also has a cultural center named for him in West Philadelphia. He was the first Black man allowed in Philadelphia’s Catholic high school league basketball in 1902. In fact, when the league tried to exclude Lee, his teammates decided they would boycott unless he was allowed to play.

Later, Lee’s daughter and Sister Cora’s aunt, Mary Paul Lee would have a similar experience of exclusion at West Catholic High in Philadelphia, but her teammates would not rally around her. By this specific example, the life experience of Cora’s family shows the ways in which progress against individual and institutional racism happens in fits and starts, and the civil and social history of this country is more complex than we sometimes allow.

Sister Cora’s aunts were both nuns – Mary Paul Lee and Mary Agnes Lee joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence, one of four orders in Pennsylvania taking Black women in the 1940s. The other orders which accepted Black sisters being the Franciscan Sisters of Mill Hill, Franciscan Handmaids of the Heart of Mary, and the Sisters of the Holy Family.

Sister Cora was candid and strong in telling her tale. She said that she has often been asked about how to maintain a relationship with a church that enslaved her ancestors. Sister Cora Marie argued that you cannot change most organizations from the outside, especially an organization like the Roman Catholic Church. She stated further that pushing the Church forward on civil issues is God’s work, and that God’s work, no matter how difficult, has to be done.

Sister Cora entered the RSM Motherhouse in Merion, PA on August 22, 1956. Her mother was fine with her decision to enter religious life; she had two sisters that were women religious, and her older brother was in the seminary until he had to leave to take care of their mom. Her father was not as excited, but he did tell her to always be the best she could be. She learned later that the only photograph he ever kept in his wallet was one of her in the old habit of the Sisters of Mercy. He was supportive and proud even though he was not explicitly encouraging.

Dr. Williams asked her about the circumstances surrounding the legacy of “being the first or the only” in so many realms of her life. Sister Cora responded half-jokingly that if she had known in her youth what she knows now, she probably would not be here. Lucky for us that she did not. She said that she was inspired by her aunts, and made her decision to enter religious life at her aunt’s going-away party. She was taught by seven different religious orders in school, and they all positively influenced her perspective on religious life. But, she said, “I don’t know that I knew or thought about all the repercussions.”

Asked about the warnings she might have experienced at the age of 17, she mentioned some peculiar circumstances. In 1956, before her entrance, she had to be interviewed three times as part of her application process, unique among her sisters.

The Sisters of Mercy were founded in Ireland in 1830, and first came to Philadelphia in 1861. Before 1945, all the Sisters of Mercy in this area were Irish, except for “fourteen or fifteen Germans.” Mother Bernard was the one to change all that – she brought in the first Italian, the first Lebanese, and the first African American sisters. In 1961, when Sister Cora was sent to Levittown, it was Mother Bernard that sent her. The Myers family were the first African Americans in Levittown in 1957; they left in 1961 after a cross was burned on their yard in March, the culmination of several years of abuse and harassment. Sister Cora moved to Levittown in August.

She taught one hundred (100) first grade students at St. Michael’s, all on her own. She never had trouble with students, declaring that racism is something children learn from adults, not something they come into the world with. She said that half of the school was physically in the area where Black families lived, in neighboring Bristol, but that there were no Black students in her classes.

A bit later in her career, Sister Cora was sent as the representative of the Sisters of Mercy to the August 1968 National Black Sisters Conference at Mount Mercy College. The conference was formed after women were excluded from the National Black Clergy Caucus which met in April of that year following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When she moved to Virginia she realized the truth of the adage that “God closes one door and opens another.” Sister Cora was the first Black nun to be a Campus Minister at Virginia State University. When the leader of her home church of St. Elizabeth’s went to the monastery, Bishop Sullivan asked Sister Cora to run a church, making her the first African American woman to lead a Catholic church in the United States (and also making her a question on jeopardy). She was one of nine women in the position, two of whom were mothers and laypeople. Sister Cora was Pastoral Coordinator at St. Elizabeth’s from 1990 to 2004. She eventually worked for the state of Virginia as Deputy Director of the Human Rights Council.

In the Q&A, Sister Cora talked about the entrance age of women to religious orders, pointing-out that Sisters of Mercy, like most of their contemporaries, will no longer allow one to join until their 20s, whereas they used to allow teens to enter in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

Sister Cora also spoke to the work she is now engaged in and the current political moment in Virginia, where the governor was recently outed for a photo he took in blackface with a friend dressed as a Klan member, and the lieutenant governor also confessed to wearing blackface at a party. She said that she voted for Ralph Shearer Northram to be governor, but that she believes he needs to resign. She said that people all over the country have trouble dealing with racism, tending to state defensively “I’m not a racist.”

Sister Cora said that the longer we wait to accept and assess, the longer it will take to solve the problems of exclusion and oppression in our society. She said that people need to be honest about where they are and how they feel, and to acknowledge privilege. She said that most people have some degree of privilege in one dimension or another, expressing her own privileged position as , giving her an opportunity to do things she otherwise would not have been able to do. She recommended the book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, wherein it is written that “the oppressed become the oppressors.” Force and hierarchy are imposed and refracted.

Sister Cora said that her vision of the church moving forward, and her message for people of color and people fighting for justice is to be hopeful and to have faith. She said we must live up to that faith and that we cannot think in terms of what “they” need to do, but rather in terms of “we,” to tell ourselves that “I have to be involved” in order to make the world a better place.

This summary of the events pales in comparison to Sister Cora’s own retelling of her story, available below:

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