Camelia Taylor ’11 Explores Black Catholic Women’s History

by Annaliese Martinez ’21, College Communications Staff Writer | March 16, 2022

After earning her bachelor’s degree in English and Women’s and Gender Studies with a minor in History, Saint Mary’s alumna Camelia Taylor ’11 dedicated her graduate research to the history of the first female Catholic religious order of African descent in the United States. Taylor, who graduated from CSU San Marcos in December 2021 with a master’s in History and an emphasis in Digital History, shared about her research and her hopes for social change. 

“My master's thesis is on the religious order, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, located in Baltimore, Maryland,” shared Taylor. “They were discovered in 1828 by Mother Mary Lange and Father Nicholas Joubert. Lange and Joubert founded their order and school, Saint Frances Academy (previously known as Saint Frances School for Colored Girls), which was dedicated to educating young Black girls before and after the Civil War. The thesis is an examination of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, highlighting their contributions in the field of education, their roles as community leaders, and their experiences as women religious of color during the Antebellum period through the Reconstruction Era.”

Throughout her thesis journey, Taylor conducted archival research and lived among the sisters to experience life as a religious woman firsthand. “I’ve always had a fascination and curiosity with nuns or religious sisters, so to actually live with a group of consecrated women who chose not to marry, but instead devote themselves to God and to live out whatever ministry the order asks of them to do, was definitely an eye-opening experience as a researcher and lay person.” 

Sister M. Theodore Riley (seated) and Sister Virginia Reister (standing), c. 1860s
Sister M. Theodore Riley (seated) and Sister Virginia Reister (standing), c. 1860s

“Also, I know this may seem cliche, but the fact that these women look like me was a bonus because, a lot of times, growing up within the Catholic faith, I didn’t see or know many Black Catholics,” shared Taylor. “But through research I have learned there is a whole history of Black Catholicism that highlights the African American contributions within the Church, that has not been tapped into by lay audiences, or widely discussed within the Church community and the larger society.”

Taylor described how, although the Oblate Sisters of Providence were not self-proclaimed feminists, their work changed history for Black and immigrant women in the United States.  “[Religious life] seems so limited, but then you see the work that they’re doing is not limited at all…. The Oblate Sisters are teaching history, they’re teaching geography, they’re teaching literature, they’re teaching mathematics, they’re teaching reading, and they’re teaching writing. Yes, they’re teaching religion, but they’re also teaching sewing, cooking, cleaning, how to be a domestic, because in that timeframe (Antebellum period), that’s what Black women were predestined to do…. But also, they were getting a spiritual and moral education in a society where Black women were perceived as hypersexual, masculine, and unintelligent. So through a classical, religious, and vocational education, Black girls and women were feeding their souls by saying, ‘You are worthy of getting an education, and you are intelligent despite the negative stereotypes placed upon Black young girls and women,’ ” said Taylor. “So whether you become a wife, mother, laborer you have the skills to survive. For a Black woman who decided to become a religous sister, it is huge to be able to say, ‘I can in theory control my body from economic exploitation and sexual exploitation through joining the order, teaching, and serving God.’ That's amazing.”

“After I finished my graduate degree, I realized how much Saint Mary’s prepares its students to continue on in higher education,” said Taylor. Taylor credited History Professors Myrna Santiago and Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo, English Professor Jeanning King, and Women’s and Gender Studies Professor Denise Witzig for preparing her with the skills to succeed in graduate school. 

“When you have small class sizes, a challenging course load, but you have professors willing to go the extra mile for you to succeed, that type of support and education speaks volumes. When you go into graduate school, you learn to push faculty members to assist you in areas you may not be strong in. You learn how to think outside of the box when you navigate the culture of higher education. So, definitely hands down, Saint Mary’s was the best foundation for me to continue in higher education,” said Taylor. 

Taylor was also a member of the High Potential Program, and credits her mentor and former director Angélica Garcia ’98, EdD, for her success in her undergraduate and graduate studies. “She helped me navigate the culture of higher education while often inspiring me and pushing me to reach my goals as a student and campus leader. I never thought about pursuing a graduate education until meeting her. Still, she and the fantastic faculty inspired me and prepared me for graduate school and the research I conducted,” said Taylor. 

Now that she has successfully completed her master’s program, Taylor plans to take a break from school, but she eventually wants to pursue law school or begin to study theology. Whichever path she decides, Taylor believes it will lead to a career rooted in service. She hopes that her research will bring light to the Oblate Sisters’ contributions to U.S. history and women’s history, as well as the legacy of Mother Mary Lange, whose cause for canonization is currently under consideration. 

“More importantly, I hope the Oblates' history enlightens and inspires people to keep pushing forward while currently living through the pandemic, the ‘Great Resignation,’ and  socioeconomic uncertainty.  Despite the sociopolitical climate of the time, as Black Catholic Women, the Oblates defied the odds as educators and leaders. So, if these women could live through slavery, Reconstruction, and still manage to serve the community of Baltimore, and continue to serve 194 years later, we too can continue to move forward. Even in this down time, we can find our way to see that light and help others along the way.”