Growing up in Memphis in the 1930s, Rosemary Marshall dreamed of becoming a nun.
By the time she turned 17, she knew she could not join the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary -- the order that had taught her all through school.
She was black and they were white. And it was not until a friend found out about an order of black nuns in Baltimore that Marshall found the answer to her prayers.
That order was the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first order of black nuns in America, which recently celebrated its 150th anniversary.
Rosemary Marshall, now Sister Mary Charlotte, 55, is the principal of St. Benedict the Moor School, one of three Oblate-operated schools in Washington.
The order was founded by Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, a refugee from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in 1829 to teach religion to free blacks and slaves.
By the turn of the century, the Oblates were teaching at girls' academies in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Washington. Now the 200 nuns teach in 21 institutions in major cities, mainly on the East Coast, in the South and in Costa Rica, according to the archivist, Sister Mary Wilhemina.
The Oblates first came to Washington in 1892 and opened St. Ann's orphanage and boarding school. Following several merges and closings, 17 Oblate sisters now teach 854 students in three city schools: St. Benedict the Moor, Sts. Paul and Augustine and Holy Comforter.
Although the Oblates have taught at several all-white schools in the past, they work primarily in black urban centers where "there is the greatest need," according to Sister Charlotte.
In Baltimore the Oblates are very involved with the poor blacks in the inner city. They run summer employment workshops for students, counsel delinquents, sponsor women's programs and hire high school students in part-time positions.
In Washington, however, the sisters concentrate more on teaching and less on community activities.
Sister Antona Ebo, 55, president of the National Black Sisters Conference, said there were three predominantly black orders in the country today.
"Teaching slaves may have been part of the reason [the orders were founded], but the real reason was the white orders didn't want blacks," she said.
Sister Antona made headlines in the Midwest in 1946 when she became the first black to enter the Sisters of St. Mary, a nursing order.The order's St. Louis hospital was the only Catholic nursing school that would accept her then, she said.
Now, Sister Antona is a pastoral counselor and an assistant chaplain at St. Mary's Hospital Medical Center in Madison, Wis.
The conference she heads was formed in 1968, at the time of the urban riots, to promote greater communication among black nuns in the country. Sister Antona estimates that 100 of the approximately 700 black nuns in the country are members now. The membership represents one-half of 1 percent of all nuns in the U.S.
According to Sister Reginald Gerdes of Baltimore, the Oblates' former archivist, the community grew to about 350 in the mid-60s, but then like most orders, dropped off sharply in the late 60s.
There are two white Oblate sisters, one in Buffalo and the other, Sister Mary of Grace, in Baltimore. "I was always bent on justice after reading about discrimination in the sisterhood," said Sister Mary of Grace. "When applying to orders, I always inquired about their attitudes towards black women and found some orders were racist."
Sister Mary of Grace, now in her 50s, works as a switchboard operator at the novitiate in Baltimore, awaiting assignment in Costa Rica.
Although a dozen sisters interviewed said they joined the order because of some kind of racial prejudice, none is bitter. "I still get a shiver when I walk into an all-white church," said Sister Antona. "But it's nothing like before when there were seregated churches. I reckon a black girl now can join just about any order she wants."