Tony award-winner Audra McDonald has been facing fan criticism for playing Mother Abess in Broadway’s “Sound of Music,” Religion Dispatches reports. Fans of the classic musical have been insisting that there weren’t black nuns in Austria in 1938 when the story takes place. Among the critics are Mike Greenberg of the ESPN sports talk show “Mike and Mike” who insisted that you “don’t rewrite history books.” Responding to a Wall Street Journal article about McDonald, another detractor Will506, commented:
“Audra McDonald did not belong in the Sound of Music as a black abbess in the Austria of 1938. It is a factual impossibility and respectful negative reaction to that represents not hate speech but a comment on 2013 political correctness run amok.”
The ahistorical argument prompted Religious Dispatches contributor Shannen D. Williams, a historian and expert on black nuns, to offer an exhaustive list of black nuns in Europe starting as early as 1685.
Although the overwhelming majority of the world’s black Catholic sisters served (and continue to serve) in the Americas and Africa, the presence of black nuns in European convents is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, one of the first documented black nuns in Europe was Louise Marie-Therese, the famed Black Nun of Moret, who took the religious habit in 1695 and remained at Benedictine abbey at Moret-sur-Loing in France until her death in 1732.
Kidnapped off the coast of present-day Ghana and sold into Spanish slavery as a child around 1686, Venerable Teresa Chikaba entered the Convent Dominican Sisters of Saint Mary Magdalene in Salamanca, Spain in 1703 and professed her vows as Therese Juliana of Saint Dominic in 1704. Generally regarded as the first black nun in a Spanish cloister, Chikaba remained in the convent until her death in 1748. She is currently under consideration for sainthood.
Europe’s most famous black nun is undoubtedly St. Josephine Bakhita, who spent twelve years as a slave in Sudan and Italy before her emancipation in 1889. She entered the novitiate at the Institute of the Catecumenate in Venice, Italy in 1893 and professed her vows as a Canosian Sister on December 8, 1896. Affectionately called Mother Moretta, or “our Black Mother,” St. Josephine Bakhita persevered in religious life through the rise and fall of the Third Reich until her death in 1947. She was canonized by the Catholic Church in 2000.
Read the entire fascinating story at Religion Dispatches.