Black Catholic nuns: A compelling, long-overlooked history

by DAVID CRARY

Even as a young adult, Shannen Dee Williams – who grew up Black and Catholic in Memphis, Tennessee – knew of only one Black nun, and a fake one at that: Sister Mary Clarence, as played by Whoopi Goldberg in the comic film “Sister Act.”

After 14 years of tenacious research, Williams – a history professor at the University of Dayton – arguably now knows more about America’s Black nuns than anyone in the world. Her comprehensive and compelling history of them, “Subversive Habits,” will be published May 17.

Williams found that many Black nuns were modest about their achievements and reticent about sharing details of bad experiences, such as encountering racism and discrimination. Some acknowledged wrenching events only after Williams confronted them with details gleaned from other sources.

“For me, it was about recognizing the ways in which trauma silences people in ways they may not even be aware of,” she said.

The story is told chronologically, yet always in the context of a theme Williams forcefully outlines in her preface: that the nearly 200-year history of these nuns in the U.S. has been overlooked or suppressed by those who resented or disrespected them.

“For far too long, scholars of the American, Catholic, and Black pasts have unconsciously or consciously declared — by virtue of misrepresentation, marginalization, and outright erasure — that the history of Black Catholic nuns does not matter,” Williams writes, depicting her book as proof that their history “has always mattered.”

The book arrives as numerous American institutions, including religious groups, grapple with their racist pasts and shine a spotlight on their communities’ overlooked Black pioneers.

Williams begins her narrative in the pre-Civil War era when some Black women – even in slave-holding states – found their way into Catholic sisterhood. Some entered previously whites-only orders, often in subservient roles, while a few trailblazing women succeeded in forming orders for Black nuns in Baltimore and New Orleans.

Even as the number of American nuns – of all races – shrinks relentlessly, that Baltimore order founded in 1829 remains intact, continuing its mission to educate Black youths. Some current members of the Oblate Sisters of Providence help run Saint Frances Academy, a high school serving low-income Black neighborhoods.

Some of the most detailed passages in “Subversive Habits” recount the Jim Crow era, extending from the 1870s through the 1950s, when Black nuns were not spared from the segregation and discrimination endured by many other African Americans.

In the 1960s, Williams writes, Black nuns were often discouraged or blocked by their white superiors from engaging in the civil rights struggle.

Yet one of them, Sister Mary Antona Ebo, was on the front lines of marchers who gathered in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 in support of Black voting rights and in protest of the violence of Bloody Sunday when white state troopers brutally dispersed peaceful Black demonstrators. An Associated Press photo of Ebo and other nuns in the march on March 10 — three days after Bloody Sunday — ran on the front pages of many newspapers.

During two decades before Selma, Ebo faced repeated struggles to break down racial barriers. At one point she was denied admittance to Catholic nursing schools because of her race, and later endured segregation policies at the white-led order of sisters she joined in St. Louis in 1946, according to Williams.

The idea for “Subversive Habits” took shape in 2007, when Williams – then a graduate student at Rutgers University – was desperately seeking a compelling topic for a paper due in a seminar on African American history.

At the library, she searched through microfilm editions of Black-owned newspapers and came across a 1968 article in the Pittsburgh Courier about a group of Catholic nuns forming the National Black Sisters’ Conference.

The accompanying photo, of four smiling Black nuns, “literally stopped me in my tracks,” she said. “I was raised Catholic … How did I not know that Black nuns existed?”

Mesmerized by her discovery, she began devouring “everything I could that had been published about Black Catholic history,” while setting out to interview the founding members of the National Black Sisters’ Conference.

Among the women Williams interviewed extensively was Patricia Grey, who was a nun in the Sisters of Mercy and a founder of the NBSC before leaving religious life in 1974.

Grey shared with The Associated Press some painful memories from 1960, when – as an aspiring nurse – she was rejected for membership in a Catholic order because she was Black.

“I was so hurt and disappointed, I couldn’t believe it,” she said about reading that rejection letter. “I remember crumbling it up and I didn’t even want to look at it again or think about it again.”

Grey initially was reluctant to assist with “Subversive Habits,” but eventually shared her own story and her personal archives after urging Williams to write about “the mostly unsung and under-researched history” of America’s Black nuns.

“If you can, try to tell all of our stories,” Grey told her.

Williams set out to do just that – scouring overlooked archives, previously sealed church records and out-of-print books, while conducting more than 100 interviews.

“I bore witness to a profoundly unfamiliar history that disrupts and revises much of what has been said and written about the U.S. Catholic Church and the place of Black people within it,” Williams writes. “Because it is impossible to narrate Black sisters’ journey in the United States — accurately and honestly — without confronting the Church’s largely unacknowledged and unreconciled histories of colonialism, slavery, and segregation.”

Historians have been unable to identify the nation’s first Black Catholic nun, but Williams recounts some of the earliest moves to bring Black women into Catholic religious orders – in some cases on the expectation they would function as servants.

One of the oldest Black sisterhoods, the Sisters of the Holy Family, formed in New Orleans in 1842 because white sisterhoods in Louisiana, including the slave-holding Ursuline order, refused to accept African Americans.

The principal founder of that New Orleans order — Henriette Delille — and Oblate Sisters of Providence founder Mary Lange are among three Black nuns from the U.S. designated by Catholic officials as worthy of consideration for sainthood. The other is Sister Thea Bowman, a beloved educator, evangelist and singer who died in Mississippi in 1990 and is buried in Williams’s hometown of Memphis.

Researching less prominent nuns, Williams faced many challenges – for example tracking down Catholic sisters who were known to their contemporaries by their religious names but were listed in archives by their secular names.

Among the many pioneers is Sister Cora Marie Billings, who as a 17-year-old in 1956 became the first Black person admitted into the Sisters of Mercy in Philadelphia. Later, she was the first Black nun to teach in a Catholic high school in Philadelphia and was a co-founder of the National Black Sisters’ Conference.

In 1990, Billings became the first Black woman in the U.S. to manage a Catholic parish when she was named pastoral coordinator for St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Richmond, Virginia.

“I’ve gone through many situations of racism and oppression throughout my life,” Billings told The Associated Press. “But somehow or other, I’ve just dealt with it and then kept on going.”

According to recent figures from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, there are about 400 African American religious sisters, out of a total of roughly 40,000 nuns.

That overall figure is only one-fourth of the 160,000 nuns in 1970, according to statistics compiled by Catholic researchers at Georgetown University. Whatever their races, many of the remaining nuns are elderly, and the influx of youthful novices is sparse.

The Baltimore-based Oblate Sisters of Providence used to have more than 300 members, according to its superior general, Sister Rita Michelle Proctor, and now has less than 50 – most of them living at the motherhouse in Baltimore’s outskirts.

“Though we’re small, we are still about serving God and God’s people.” Proctor said. “Most of us are elderly, but we still want to do so for as long as God is calling us to.”

Even with diminished ranks, the Oblate Sisters continue to operate Saint Frances Academy – founded in Baltimore by Mary Lange in 1828. The coed school is the country’s oldest continually operating Black Catholic educational facility, with a mission prioritizing help for “the poor and the neglected.”

Williams, in an interview with the AP, said she was considering leaving the Catholic church – due partly to its handling of racial issues – at the time she started researching Black nuns. Hearing their histories, in their own voices, revitalized her faith, she said.

“As these women were telling me their stories, they were also preaching to me in a such a beautiful way,” Williams said. “It wasn’t done in a way that reflected any anger — they had already made their peace with it, despite the unholy discrimination they had faced.”

What keeps her in the church now, Williams said, is a commitment to these women who chose to share their stories.

“It took a lot for them to get it out,” she said. “I remain in awe of these women, of their faithfulness.”

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Pope rules baptised lay Catholics, including women, can lead Vatican departments

Italian lay woman Francesca Di Giovanni, who was named by Pope Francis as the first woman to hold a high-ranking post in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, is pictured at the Vatican, December 23, 2013

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Pope Francis introduced a landmark reform on Saturday that will allow any baptised lay Catholic, including women, to head most Vatican departments under a new constitution for the Holy See’s central administration.

For centuries, the departments have been headed by male clerics, usually cardinals or bishops, but that could change from June 5 when the new charter takes effect after more than nine years of work.

The 54-page constitution, called Praedicate Evangelium (Preach the Gospel), was released on the ninth anniversary of Francis’ installation as pope in 2013, and replaces one issued in 1988 by Pope John Paul II.

Its preamble says the “pope, bishops and other ordained ministers are not the only evangelisers in the Church”, adding that lay men and women “should have roles of government and responsibility” in the central administration, known as the Curia.

The principles section of the constitution says “any member of the faithful can head a dicastery (Curia department) or organism” if the pope decides they are qualified and appoints them.

Under the 1988 constitution, the departments – with a few exceptions – were to be headed by a cardinal or bishop and assisted by a secretary, experts and administrators.

The new constitution makes no distinction between lay men and lay women, though experts said at least two departments – the department for bishops and the department for clergy – will remain headed by men because only men can be priests in the Catholic Church.

The department for consecrated life, which is responsible for religious orders, could conceivably be headed by a nun in the future, the experts said. It is now led by a cardinal.

In an interview with Reuters in 2018, the pope said he had short-listed a woman to head a Vatican economic department, but she could not take the job for personal reasons.

ROLE OF LAITY ‘ESSENTIAL’

The new constitution said the role of lay Catholics in governing roles in the Curia was “essential” because of their familiarity with family life and “social reality”.

Francis also merged some offices, created a new one to oversee charity efforts, and set up a new order of importance.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which includes lay people and abuse victims, appears to have been given more institutional influence by being incorporated into the doctrinal department, which decides on sanctions for priests convicted of sexual abuse.

But one of the commission’s original members, Marie Collins of Ireland, said on Twitter this could hurt its independence.

While the Secretariat of State kept its premier position as administrative, coordinating and diplomatic department, the centuries-old high status of the doctrinal office was placed below that of the department of evangelisation.

The pope will head the evangelisation office himself, highlighting the importance he gives to spreading and reviving the faith.

Francis has already named a number of lay people, among them women, to Vatican departments.

Last year, he for the first time named a woman to the number two position in the governorship of Vatican City, making Sister Raffaella Petrini the highest-ranking woman in the world’s smallest state.

Also last year, he named Italian nun Sister Alessandra Smerilli to the interim position of secretary of the Vatican’s development office, which deals with justice and peace issues.

In addition, Francis has named Nathalie Becquart, a French member of the Xaviere Missionary Sisters, as co-undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, which prepares major meetings of world bishops held every few years.

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The Nun Reshaping the Role of Women Inside the Vatican

Sister Nathalie Becquart will play a prominent role at the Synod of Bishops next year as Pope Francis tries to encourage new voices in the hierarchy.

Sister Nathalie Becquart will serve as under secretary of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops next year in Rome.

By Celestine Bohlen

Sister Nathalie Becquart, 53, a French Roman Catholic nun, was named to serve as under secretary of the Synod of Bishops, a summit of 250 bishops from around the world that will meet in Rome in 2023. She will become the first woman with a right to vote at such a high-level Vatican gathering.

What is the significance of your appointment?

We can read this as a call by Pope Francis to have a woman be there — not just as a woman, but as a lay person. I am a lay woman, since as religious (a church term for members of religious orders), we are not clerics. He really believes that the Holy Spirit speaks not only through the hierarchy, but also through all baptized people.

At the beginning of the church, there was this idea that the church was first of all a community. Then, for many historical reasons, the church put the focus on the institutional hierarchy. And now we rediscover that the main focus of the church is people walking together: Everyone has a role. Nobody should be set aside. We are together, the church, the people of God, all of us — bishops, men, women, lay people, religious, married, single, children — baptized. So we all have to be protagonists of the mission of the church.

What kind of issues will you be voting on at the synod?

That’s difficult to say. The Synod of Bishops is a process, one that was founded at the end of Vatican II as a way to continue the experience of the pope meeting with all the bishops, an advisory body for the pope. Now, it is a listening process that has already started in dioceses all over the world. This synod — which follows synods on youth (2018) and on the Amazon region (2019) — is about what kind of church we want to be, how we can best serve the world.

So far we are at the listening stage, the first time in the history of the church that we have such a broad-based listening process.

How has Pope Francis given women a greater voice in the Church? What difference has it made?

Pope Francis has been trying to fill the gap that has sometimes been put between leaders and faithful — those who know or who teach, on one side, and the rest.

Women are a part of the church. Which is why it is so important that they have a voice, that they participate. There was a major change a year ago when Pope Francis opened up the possibility for women to have a specific role (in church services) as lectors and acolytes; before, that was only for men.

What are the obstacles to women being ordained priests in the Catholic Church?

The vision of Pope Francis, through this synod, is to get rid of a clerical church and move to a synodal church — to disconnect participation in the leadership of the church from ordination. We can say that the way now opening up is to listen to all different views; for instance, not everyone thinks ordination of women is a good path. You have some groups calling for that, but you also have some groups calling for new ministries.

The question of women is a sign of the times. It is a powerful call within our societies and in the church. The church has already said we should fight against any discrimination against women. But it is a long way, not only in the church.

What have been your experiences as a woman in what were once all-male gatherings?

I was the first woman to be director of the national office of youth and vocation at the French Catholic Bishops Conference; before it was always a priest. At a gathering in Lourdes, I remember a very old bishop asked me, “So whose secretary are you?” I said, “No, not a secretary, I am a director of a national office.” He was a little bit surprised because someone from his generation — they were usually trained in minor seminaries since the age of 12 — didn’t have a lot of experience with women.

The younger generation is different; many have had professional experiences. I work with young priests, and for many of them, working in team with women who may be their boss, it is no longer a question.

You have degrees in business management, philosophy, sociology and theology; you have worked as a volunteer in Lebanon; studied in Boston and Chicago; and worked as a consultant at a marketing agency for nongovernmental and religious organizations. What parts of that experience led you to this critical — maybe history-making — role at the heart of the Catholic Church?

When I was young, I was a girl scout and later a scout leader. It was kind of a school of leadership.

As a student at HEC Paris (the prestigious business school), I specialized in entrepreneurship, how to take risks, to organize a business plan. I learned a lot about how to work as a team, about project management, how to develop the spirit of entrepreneurship, how to take risks.

I became a nun in 1995, at age 26, so there is also my experience in religious life. I would highlight my spiritual path of transformation, of conversion, of living in a community. Throughout life, you face difficulties, crises, storms. But if you are really rooted in faith, and sure that Christ is with you, the main message of the Gospels and the church is that darkness is not the end. There is always this message of hope and resurrection. This has helped me, even through difficult times.

You are also a great sailor.

I am a skipper! And yes, sailing has been a great school of life and leadership. When you are a skipper, you have to listen to your crew. For many years, I received the gift to sail and lead retreats for young adults. It was a way to put together my experience sailing and my call for a ministry to help young people. Truly, the sea is my place.

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Is Francis laying the foundation for women to become recognized priests?

Sister Nathalie Becquart poses for a photo during an interview with the Associated Press, in Rome, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. Pope Francis has named the French nun to a Vatican position that should give her a vote in any upcoming meeting of bishops, a small step forward in the long campaign of Catholic women to have a greater say in Catholic decision-making.

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Pope Francis has done more to reform the Roman Catholic church for a new age since Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The ferocity of opposition in U.S. Catholic conservative circles validates this assessment.

Francis acknowledged his growing opposition in off-hand remarks aboard the papal plane on Sept. 4, 2019. ABC News reported Francis as saying it is “an honor if the Americans attack me.”

But for all he is doing, he draws a line about the ordination of women.

He has accepted the decision of Pope John Paul II who said, “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that the judgment is to be definitely held by all the church’s faithful.”

That did not silence women’s ordination advocates in 1994, and there are even more voices clamoring for it today.

This may have paid off since the Vatican recently included a group lobbying for women’s ordination – the Women’s Ordination Conference — on a website promoting the two-year synod concluding in 2023. In other words, Francis wants to hear from them as well as many other Catholic advocacy groups.

And there’s the rub: Women’s ordination may be way off in the future. But some commentators believe that Francis’ small, incremental moves, like the WOC inclusion and regularizing the roles of lector and eucharistic minister for women, can make it easier for his successor to eventually ordain women though Francis has never acknowledged this objective.

Kate McElwee, executive director of the WOC, admitted to America Magazine that she was surprised the Vatican had accepted the group’s inclusion on the “Resources” site and said it showed “a lot of courage” from the synod office.

What took real courage, however, was the ordination of seven women as priests in the Catholic church by three bishops on a cruise ship on the Danube in 2007. That gave birth to a movement, mostly in North America, that has ordained about 200 women as priests to date. Still, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the number of male priests totaling about 410,000 worldwide.

Other Christian denominations and Reform Judaism, meanwhile, have ordained women for decades.

The Vatican declared the 2007 and subsequent ordinations illicit and said the women declared themselves excommunicated by undergoing the ordination. But the church has stopped making such statements.

Validly ordained male bishops ordained the women to assure apostolic succession and while they are valid, the Vatican will not accept them.

Take the case of Ludmila Jararova, who was secretly ordained a priest in Communist Czechoslovakia back in 1970 for the underground church. Once the church could practice publicly, her male underground peers could continue as priests but she could not.

Author Jill Peterfeso has done an excellent job getting behind the movements that have fostered women for ordinations, the women priests themselves and the communities they lead outside the normal parish structure. In “Womenpriest,” published by Fordham University, one of her major conclusions is that these women do no want to simply be ordained like males.

Their credo, she writes, could be: “We have not walked away from Rome. We offer a new model of ordained ministry in a renewed Roman Catholic Church.”

These “womenpriests,” a word coined by the advocacy groups, resist the clericalism that has kept a patriarchal system in place and want more inclusion all across the board. And on the heels of major clerical sexual abuse scandals, which are still reverberating throughout the world, Peterfeso wrote: “If male priests’ bodies inspire fear and distrust, womenpriests’ bodies represent new potential.”

Without major reform, women are voting with their feet, concluded Peterfeso.

“While women’s attendance at Mass is higher than men, women’s declined twice as much as men,” she wrote.

And the decline among millennial women is significant.

“Nones” — those claiming no religion — are growing. Another group, A Church for our Daughters — an online program supported by about two dozen women’s equality groups — knows that justice and equality for women is still a potent movement and without inclusion of women in church leadership, young women will continue to walk away.

Pope Francis has appointed women to positions of greater authority than any previous pontiff. In 2019, 24 percent of employees at the Holy See were women, compared with 17.6 percent in 2010. When Sister Nathalie Becquart, a member of the Congregation of Xavières, was appointed the first woman undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, she told reporters her appointment was evidence that “the patriarchal mindset [of the church] is changing.” Cardinal Tobin in Newark, who serves on the Vatican Synod Committee, has praised her accomplishments.

Charles Carr, my seminary classmate now in Philadelphia who left before ordination, said, “My personal vote would be for ordaining women as priests. If Eucharist, or union with Christ, is foundational for Christians to experience rebirth into a new life, then why would we not imagine the power of women to play this transformative sacramental role?”

And while most polls show Catholic overwhelmingly support ordaining women, Peterfeso reveals that more would prefer the institutional church ratify the change. As I approach 40 years as a priest, I have met many women who can lead.

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Pope Francis writes to controversial nun, thanking her for 50 years of LGBTQ ministry

Sister Jeannine Gramick, the co-founder of New Ways Ministry recently received a handwritten letter from Pope Francis congratulating her on “50 years of closeness, of compassion and of tenderness” in a ministry that he described as being in “ ‘the style’ of God.”

Pope Francis has sent an encouraging letter to an American nun thanking her for her 50 years of ministry to LGBTQ Catholics, more than two decades after she was investigated and censured by the Vatican for her work.

In his letter dated Dec. 10, Francis wrote that Sister Jeannine Gramick has not been afraid of “closeness” and without condemning anyone had the “tenderness” of a sister and a mother. “Thank you, Sister Jeannine, for all your closeness, compassion and tenderness,” he wrote.

He also noted her “suffering … without condemning anyone.”

Gramick, who lives just outside of Washington, D.C., in Mount Rainier, Md., said that the letter felt like it was “from a friend.”

“Of course, I was overjoyed,” she said. “It felt like a turning point in the church, because for so long, this ministry has been maligned and in the shadows.”< For decades, Gramick and her New Ways Ministry co-founder, the late Rev. Robert Nugent, were considered controversial by some church leaders for the workshops they did about the science and theology around LGBTQ topics. Gramick said she would not provide her opinion, but she would present the Catholic Church’s teaching, as well as doctrinal positions from more moderate and liberal theologians. Gramick said she was under scrutiny from the Vatican for about 20 years before officials issued a declaration that she would be barred from ministry. “The ambiguities and errors of the approach of Father Nugent and Sister Gramick have caused confusion among the Catholic people and have harmed the community of the Church,” the 1999 statement from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith said.

Gramick later transferred to another religious order to keep doing her work.

A spokesman for the Vatican did not respond immediately Friday to a message seeking to confirm the authenticity of the pope’s letter to Gramick. The letter, first published on Friday in the Catholic publication America magazine, is the latest in a series of several letters the pontiff has written this year to gay Catholics and others who are serving and advocating for LGBTQ people.

The pope’s letter follows actions by the Vatican on gay rights that have frustrated Francis’s more liberal supporters. Early in his papacy, he famously declared: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” But he has upheld church doctrine that calls LGBTQ acts “disordered.” Last year, the Vatican’s doctrinal body said that Catholic priests cannot bless same-sex unions.

In December, a Vatican official apologized to New Ways Ministry for having pulled a reference to it on the Vatican website, drawing praise from the group as a rare and “historic” apology and for restoring the reference. New Ways revealed that Pope Francis had written them two letters earlier in 2021 praising their ministry. In those letters, Francis noted Gramick’s work, that he knew “how much she has suffered,” describing her as “a valiant woman who makes her decisions in prayer.”

The Rev. James Martin, a New York City-based priest known for his ministry affirming LGBTQ Catholics, said he has received a few letters from Pope Francis but made one of them public in July 2021. Gramick’s letter, he said, is significant because she has been censured by the Vatican.

“For most LGBTQ Catholics, Sister Jeannine is a real hero, so they’ll be delighted. They’ll rightly see this as one of Pope Francis’s steps forward,” Martin said. “He doesn’t change church teaching on this but take steps … added up, all the steps, we’ve come a long way.”

Gramick said official investigations came after the late Cardinal James Hickey, the former archbishop of Washington, wrote to the Vatican asking officials to pressure Gramick and Nugent to stop their ministry. An investigation was launched in 1988 and in 1999, the Vatican issued its censure.

“It was devastating,” she said. “What can I say? It didn’t feel good.”

A spokeswoman for the archdiocese of Washington did not immediately return a request for comment on the letter.

Gramick said she and others from New Ways Ministries met with Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, in October and told them about the letters Pope Francis had sent the ministry. “Sounds like you’re pen pals,” Gregory told them, according to Gramick.

Gramick said she started her ministry when she was 29 while studying in graduate school and befriended a gay man who had left the Catholic Church for the Episcopal Church. In his apartment, she organized Mass for gay and lesbian people who had left the Catholic Church.

“When the liturgy was over, they had tears in their eyes because they felt they were being welcomed home again,” she said.

Gramick said she hopes the church will eventually change its position on sexual ethics and listen to the growing number of parishioners who have become more LGBTQ affirming.

“What would I say to LGBT Catholics is, ‘Hold on, it will change,’ ” she said. “We have to make our views known so that the officials of the church can properly express that change.’ ”

Francis also wrote to America magazine national correspondent Michael O’Loughlin, who is a gay Catholic, commending him for reporting on Catholic responses to the HIV/AIDS crisis.

From the earliest days of his papacy, O’Loughlin said, the pope has reached out to individuals in a personal way by calling people on the phone and writing the string of LGBTQ-related letters.

“There’s a lot of hurt and pain in the LGBT community and a single letter or group of letters is not going to fix that,” O’Loughlin said. “He’s interested in highlighting Catholics living out their faith even in areas that have been historically difficult for the church.”

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