Once denied because of her race, Sister Jannette decided to take vows after her children were grown
By Clare Ansberry
Originally published on November 17, 2015 – Wall Street Journal
Jannette Marie Pruitt is a mother of three, grandmother of seven, great-grandmother of two, and one of two black Catholic nuns in the otherwise white order of the Sisters of St. Francis. Learn about Saint Francis on Catholic Online.
“I thought I was crazy,” says Sister Jannette, 66, recalling her decision to join the Franciscan Sisters in Oldenburg, Ind., an order with 199 sisters. She was 47 at the time, and liked nice clothes, spoiling her grandkids and coming and going as she pleased. Growing up in Mississippi in the mid-1950s, she had wanted to be a nun, but was discouraged because she was black. The church has changed since then.
Everyone has dreams in life, and many are deferred. Those dreams may be abandoned but are rarely forgotten. As circumstances change, a remote aspiration, once revisited, sometimes ends up within reach.
Until the late 1960s, many Catholic orders in the U.S. had “white only” admission policies, says Shannen Williams, an assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee. Others voted on whether to admit a black candidate and made those accepted take their vows separately, says Dr. Williams, who is compiling a history of black Catholic sisters in the U.S. Partly in response, several black nuns founded predominantly black religious orders and in 1968 organized the National Black Sisters’ Conference. Read more about the National Black Sisters’ Conference here.
Vocations to the sisterhood were near a peak at that time, but black sisters still represented only 1,000 of the 180,000 sisters in the U.S.
Since then, the numbers of all religious sisters have fallen in the U.S. to 50,000 total, and to 350 for African-American sisters. To slow the pace of decline and to reflect the world around them, religious communities in the U.S. are becoming more culturally diverse. Four of 10 women entering orders in the past decade were nonwhite, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
As a child, Sister Jannette and her grandmother walked to Mass every morning at St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church in Bay St. Louis, Miss. In the evening, when the church bells chimed at 6 p.m, her family said the rosary. Her grandfather helped build the church and accompanying school because blacks had to sit in the back of the white church, Our Lady of the Gulf. Sister Jannette went to the school and was taught by an order of white nuns. She helped them clean the church. “Everything they needed, I was there doing,” says Sister Jannette.
One day, while out on the playground, she told a teacher, Sister Mildred, that she was interested in becoming a nun. Sister Mildred offered no encouragement or advice. “The mindset of the time was that they had come to save the poor black souls and we were not worthy of that kind of life,” Sister Jannette says. The young girl accepted that it just wasn’t possible.
At 19, she was living in New Orleans, married and pregnant with the first of her three children. The marriage didn’t last. Her husband ended up in jail. “He wasn’t living a good life,” she says. They divorced, her marriage was annulled, and she moved to Oakland, Calif., with her children, getting a job as a nursing assistant. It was a struggle to pay bills and raise her children on her own.
She became even more involved in the church, joining the Black Catholic Apostolate and organizing masses, with gospel songs, spiritual dances and drums. “We formed this coalition to do church in a way we are used to doing church — singing our music, clapping our hands,” she says.
After her children were grown, she returned to New Orleans to care for her sick mother and eventually moved to Indianapolis, teaching kindergarten at St. Rita, an African-American Catholic school and church. One Sunday, she saw a notice in the weekly church bulletin about a weekend for African-Americans who wanted to explore religious life. She remembered wanting to be a nun as a little girl and then laughed at the thought of even considering it. “You have to be kidding me,” she thought. She tried to put it out of her mind, but couldn’t. She decided, quietly, to go, never telling the priests she worked with, her children or her friends.
The weekend was hosted by several orders in the Indianapolis area. As Sister Jannette paged through a photo album of the Franciscan sisters in Oldenburg, one of them, Sister Marge Wissman, approached her. They talked. Sister Jannette told Sister Marge all the reasons it was impossible for her to become a nun—she had children, grandchildren. She was too old. She was black.
Sister Marge invited her to spend a week at Nia Kuumba house, an African-American retreat house in St. Louis run by the Franciscan sisters. Above her bed there hung a painting of an African-American child, her long hair braided and beaded, running across a field. “Everything spoke to me. I felt at home,” she said.
Before she settled on the Franciscans, an African-American priest friend suggested she spend a week in New Orleans with the Sisters of the Holy Family, an all-black order established in the 1800s. She asked why, and he explained. “We need to be ourselves. We are not white. We are who we are,” she recalls.
She went, loved the sisters and felt welcome, but didn’t think it was the right order for her. For one thing, the Sisters of the Holy Family wore habits. The Franciscan sisters had given up their habits and put a hair salon on their campus. “The Sisters of St. Francis were very fun-loving and outgoing,” she says, which better fit her personality. Sister Jannette likes to wear bright colors and hoop earnings in her twice pierced ears. A cross pendant, the sign of her sisterhood, hangs around her neck.
She worried about telling her three children. They were in the kitchen of her daughter’s house in New Orleans, washing dishes. “I have something to tell you,” she said. They stopped.
“I’m going to become a nun,” she recalls telling them.
Her son, she remembers, replied, “We were wondering when you would.” She was dumbfounded. They told her she was always working at the church. DeLaSandra McKnight, her oldest, remembers her mother telling her, “You know, I would be a nun if I hadn’t met your daddy.”
The process of becoming a nun took years, which was good, says Sister Jannette, because she needed time to adjust to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. “She loved her clothes, her shoes, her trinkets,” says Ms. McKnight. “She was never the type of person who wore crazy or tight-fitting clothes, but she had a very classy fashion sense.”
She loved indulging her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who call her Granny. She would have liked to help pay for the ballroom for her granddaughter’s wedding this summer. “But where do I get $1,000? If I was working outside and saving, I could do that,” says Sr. Jannette, who spent two weeks in Texas to help with preparations. The Franciscan sisters encourage her to visit her children whenever possible and welcomed her granddaughter, who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina and came to live temporarily with Sister Jannette.
Obedience is difficult, too. As a single mother, she had made all the decisions for herself and her kids until they were on their own. “I was so busy doing things and being in charge. I’m not in charge these days,” she says. As for the vows of chastity, “it’s not for everyone,” she acknowledges. Her lay friends tell her, “Girl, better you than me.”
Today, Sister Jannette is coordinator of the Black Catholic Ministry for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, helping organize programs for black Catholics. She also sits on the board of the National Black Sisters’ Conference and was twice nominated for the Harriet Tubman award, honoring a sister who is “Moses of Her People.”
“She did not have an easy life,” says Sister Catherine Schneider, who guided her during the stages of becoming a nun. “She lived the life she found herself in with integrity and deep faith.”
Sister Jannette has a small apartment, as do a handful of other sisters who work in Indianapolis, because the Sisters of St. Francis don’t maintain a convent there. Every morning and evening, she reads prayers, scripture and reflections from a book written for her order. She attends Mass daily at the archdiocese chapel or the cathedral across the street.
She returns to the mother house in Oldenburg several times a year, greeting sisters on the steps and in the wide hallways with hugs. She browses through the convent gift shop, picks up a blue crocheted baby sweater made by one of the sisters and looks for a matching pink one. Her granddaughter is expecting twins. “I have two vocations,” she says. “My life is full.”
Read about the National Black Sisters’ Conference’s 50th anniversary, celebrated on August 1, 2018, on the Global Sisters Report here.