I once lived on a small island in western Canada where Black folk, while long present, were not readily visible in the community. So, I was tickled when a cheeky Black male teenager one day crossed my path and yelled, “Sister Act.”
At the time, I wore my hair in dreadlocks, a style that prompted some people to mistake me for actor Whoopi Goldberg. Born Caryn Elaine Johnson, Goldberg had starred in the 1992 film about a lounge singer who takes refuge in a convent after witnessing a murder.
Masquerading as “Sister Mary Clarence” and wearing a nun’s habit, Goldberg soon leads the convent’s choir in pop tunes such as “Shout” and “I Will Follow Him.”
The madcap movie wafted through my mind when, a few years back, I enjoyed a retreat at a convent in New Brunswick. There, a small group of cloistered Trappistine nuns practiced their faith in an ambience of sacred prayer, music, communal work, and silence. In keeping with the order’s tradition of hospitality, the abbey also welcomed women of all creeds for private retreats.
Curious about the backgrounds of the women who’d “taken the veil,” I was stunned to discover that an African-American, Phyllis Rae Johnson, had joined the convent in 1951. A native of Michigan who’d been raised Episcopalian and envisioned a teaching career, Johnson, then age 24, instead converted to Catholicism and decided to become a nun after reading The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton.
Published in 1948, the volume details the quest that led Merton — a former New York college professor and jazz enthusiast — to forsake secular life and become a Trappist monk. Johnson longed to emulate Merton but was unable to enter an American convent because of prejudice.
“White nuns did not want to live with Black women and girls called to consecrated life,” notes Shannen Dee Williams, author of Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle (2022). The book stands as the first full-length history of Black women in the Catholic church — a group that includes a Nobel Laureate in Literature born Chloe Ardellia Wofford.
The bookish youth took the baptismal name Anthony — after St. Anthony of Padua — when she was confirmed Catholic, at age 12. The world later came to know her as Toni Morrison (1931-2019), in large part, because of her faith.
Holding fast to the message in the civil rights anthem, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” Phyllis Johnson bid farewell to her weeping kinfolk and boarded a train to the New Brunswick nunnery. There, she was renamed Sister Marie Lutgarde, in honour of Saint Lugardis, a 13th century Flemish nun.
Not long after her arrival, Sister Lutgarde dispatched a letter to her parents and only sibling, now Lois Wheeler, in which she described the landscape. “I hope by now that you’ve stopped crying,” she wrote. “The convent is more beautiful than I had ever dreamed.”
Clothed in her Trappistine habit, the devout nun made occasional trips home where her family indulged her with special treats. “We’d go out for hamburgers because the convent food was mainly vegetarian,” Wheeler later told me. “One time I took her to see Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act. She covered her face during the first part of the movie, which is kind of racy. But she liked it.”
Gifted with a gorgeous singing voice that she used to regale the other nuns with gospel hymns, Sister Lutgarde had been at the convent for more than forty years when, en route to a medical appointment, a train slammed into the vehicle in which she was a passenger.
Age 67, she died instantly and was buried in the abbey’s picturesque cemetery. The driver survived the crash.
The site where Sister Lutgarde perished was not marked, then or now, by guard gates or flashing signal lights. Mindful that frequent train traffic in the area had resulted in numerous deaths, New Brunswick officials initiated safety measures that have since decreased fatalities.
“After the tragedy of Sister Lutgarde, we worked together to have the trains sound their whistles when they pass through,” a local leader told me. “Now people are more aware of the danger.”
To be sure, I heard the distinctive blasts of train whistles during my sojourns at the now shuttered convent where the only known Black woman to have ever taken vows made a lasting impact. “Phyllis stepped out of the life planned for her,” Wheeler told me. “She stepped out of her religion, out of her culture … out of her country. And she made a difference.”
As believers mark religious holidays such as Easter, Passover, and Ramadan, I’m also reminded of Sister Josephine Bakhita (1869-1947), a formerly enslaved woman from Sudan who later joined the Canossian Order of Sisters in Italy.
Like Sister Lutgarde, Sister Josephine refused to let life’s circumstances turn her around. In 2000, she became the first Black woman, in the modern era, to be canonized as a saint.
Evelyn C. White is the author of Alice Walker: A Life.