Faith, Race & Sisterhood Explored During Sister Mary Schmidt Lecture

Sisters Sylvia Thibodeax and Alicia Costa, both members of the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans – a congregation of Black women religious, spoke to the Seton Hill community virtually about “Faith, Race & Sisterhood: Exploring the Diversity Question with the Sisters of the Holy Family” as part of this year’s Sister Mary Schimdt lecture.

“The topic is a timely one as we at Seton Hill University work to continue the history and legacy of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill and their commitment to issues of diversity, equity and inclusion,” President Mary Finger said.

The Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill have a history with the Sisters of the Holy Family dating back more than 100 years. The Sisters of Charity traveled to New Orleans in 1921 to prepare members of the Sisters of the Holy Family for the state teaching exam so that they could educate Black children in the city as the opportunities for education in the South were limited by Jim Crow laws.

“I knew it at the time and I believe it today that God’s wisdom touched the hearts of the women in leadership of the Sisters of Charity and they responded to meet a need genuinely,” Sister Sylvia said.

Both Sisters spent time on campus – Sister Sylvia as a student in the 1960s and Sister Alicia as a faculty member in the early 2000s. Attendees could watch the lecture remotely or join a watch party on campus in Cecilian Hall on April 15.

Sister Sylvia was assigned to study at Seton Hill by her religious superior in 1965 and graduated from Seton Hill College in 1967 with degrees in English and American History.

“For the first time I was away from my religious community, away from what was familiar. I had never lived exclusively with people who were different from me,” Sister Sylvia said. “Surprisingly, I adjusted. I found a new home.”

“I did well in my studies and made lasting friendships with the Sisters and classmates,” she added. “My Seton Hill experience began for me an adult faith journey which has strengthened my life for the many challenges and opportunities I’ve had in my brief 85 years.”

Sister Alicia entered the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1969. She taught at multiple schools throughout Louisiana and at Xavier University in New Orleans. In 2004, the order assigned her to teach at Seton Hill University.

While Sister Alicia found most people friendly and developed lifelong relationships both with the Sisters of Charity and with others on campus, she did not always feel welcomed by everyone.

Greensburg’s overall lack of diversity often left Sister Alicia the only person of color in the room wherever she went in the area.

“At times I felt sympathy for the students, faculty, and staff who seemed to have had no experience of other races,” Sister Alicia said. “I came to realize that God had sent me for a special reason to awaken them.”

While she could have backed away from the challenges she faced, she was determined to carry on and make as much of an impact on her students and diversity initiatives on campus as she could during her time at Seton Hill.

Looking at today’s Seton Hill and seeing the work that is currently being done on campus through the President’s Task Force on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion also gives Sister Alicia hope and encouragement.

“There is more work to be done, but I can see a great deal of progress from the time I was at Seton Hill,” Sister Alicia said. “Things have really changed within the last 20 years, and that is a good thing. SHU is really growing in grace.”