Sister Cora Billings, head of the Office of Black Catholics for the Roman Catholic diocese of Richmond, will become the first black nun in the United States to head a parish when she assumes her new duties next week as a pastoral coordinator.

Billings, 51, will administer St. Elizabeth's parish, where most of the 219 members are black.

The parish, in Richmond, has been shrinking, but local church officials believe that Billings will help preserve the local identity and spirit of the parish, according to Dennis Beeman, coordinator of Lay Ministries Formation Catholic Diocese of Richmond.

The nun, a member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Merion, will depend on a priest from a neighboring parish to say Mass, hear confessions and perform other sacramental rites that only men may perform under church doctrine.

Billings replaces the Rev. Matthias G. Newell, who is leaving to become a Benedictine monk.

Bishop Walter F. Sullivan, who announced the nun's assignment, could not find a priest to replace the departing pastor.

Four other parishes in the Richmond diocese are run by pastoral coordinators. The number of priests in the diocese, as in the U.S. Catholic Church in general, is declining and forcing church leaders to find alternative means of serving the needs of Catholic communities.

Beeman said he is certain that Billings can run the parish. "She has taught and has been a leader in the community, and {I} am confident she is the right person to lead the community," Beeman said. Her race, Beeman said, will be an asset, but "the community is confident more in her skills to be pastorally sensitive to people in need, regardless of her being black or white."

Lindsay Bryant, leader of the Pastoral Council of St. Elizabeth's Parish, said Billings will be welcomed as a leader. "With the shortage of priests, we feel that this is one alternative that can work," she said.

Billings was in Haiti last week and could not be reached for comment.

She will continue to run diocesan programs for black Catholics.

Billings is from Philadelphia, and is a 1967 graduate of Villanova University, where she received her bachelor of arts degree in the humanities. She also attended St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia and completed courses for a master of arts in religious studies in 1975. She is a part-time campus minister at Virginia State University in Petersburg.

Billings will assume her duties as pastoral coordinator of St. Elizabeth's parish on June 4.

The Religious News Service contributed to this report.