Decades in nonviolence and anti-racism work has prepared Sr. Patricia Chappell for this tense moment in United States history, as her lifelong passions have become part of mainstream conversation in the country.
Chappell, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, was the executive director of Pax Christi USA for eight years and president of the National Black Sisters’ Conference for five years. Now the co-coordinator of her community’s anti-racism team, she has long been involved in anti-racism work, helping religious communities confront the systemic racism within their congregations.
And right now, she’s especially hopeful that communities of women religious can move toward “being in right relationship with those who think and look differently than the majority of us,” she said.
As she’s attempted to right the injustices she saw around her, Chappell said she never thought the Leadership Conference of Women Religious noticed her ministries until they called to tell her she would be the recipient of this year’s Outstanding Leadership Award, though the award ceremony has been postponed until next year because this year’s assembly will be virtual.
Though the honor came as a surprise to Chappell, her friends who spoke with Global Sisters Report said her tenacity, open-mindedness and dogged pursuit of justice make her a natural and effective leader.
Victoria Virgo-Christie*, an old family friend of Chappell’s, said the fact that she’s been “a consistent advocate for the underserved is what allows her to stand out.”
“She’s not willing to just stay comfortable,” she said.
By diving into those awkward conversations, Chappell, 67, “brings other members of the religious congregation into situations that they wouldn’t necessarily” choose to be in.
Chappell’s spirituality, as Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Anne-Louise Nadeau said, is grounded in a God of liberation: “She wants all people to have the fullness of life as Jesus promised.”
Indeed, Chappell said she takes issue with how Catholic theology often responds to sorrow and adversity in this life by pointing to the salvation that awaits.
“You can’t tell me that I should be willing to suffer in this world and to anticipate that in the next world, I’m going to put on my long white robe and experience freedom,” she said. “Why can I not experience freedom and empowerment while I’m on this side of the world and not have to wait till I’m dead to experience that?”
Chappell has dedicated decades of her life’s work to embodying that desire to empower others while also advocating nonviolence and racial justice — work aimed to reform unjust institutions one painful conversation at a time.
A lifelong interest in social justice
Born Sept. 19, 1952, Chappell grew up in a tight-knit Black community in New Haven, Connecticut, where “it takes a village to raise a child” was a lived concept, she said.
“That greatly influenced who I am today, this sense of, you don’t live in a vacuum, but you live in relationship to others, being available to serve one another.”
The oldest of seven children, Chappell said her family’s home parish, St. Martin de Porres, was the center where social justice and community issues were raised, the source of her “cultural and spiritual development.”
It was also where she learned leadership, as her school and church regularly called upon youth to lead activities and encouraged “a sense of speaking up and speaking out,” which came naturally to her given her interest in local justice issues, she said.
While at St. Joseph’s College in West Hartford, Connecticut, she had the opportunity in the early 1970s to engage in youth ministry, particularly with Black Catholic youth.
The idea was to lift them up spiritually while emphasizing mission and service to others, Chappell said. For many, the youth group was their introduction to Catholic social teaching, connecting moral responsibility with their Catholicism.
“These youth were on fire,” she said. They became a voice that challenged the church: “These hymns are nice, but times are changing, and we’re starting to wear our Afros, and we’re now speaking about the contributions that we bring as Black youth. So, what about gospel choir?”
They also started to ask why nobody depicted in the church — Jesus, Mary, saints — looked like them, then asked adults to teach them more about the long history of Black Catholics.
Growing up, Chappell said she experienced discrimination whenever she left the “safety net” that was her neighborhood, Dixwell Avenue. Not being served in restaurants, being followed around in stores — “all that is certainly part of my history.”
In high school and college, Chappell was drawn to the Black Power movement, wearing her Afro and dashikis and joining student movements that, for example, called for more Black faculty members. The more she was educated, she said, the more she began to “understand how systems were set up to keep some people marginalized and oppressed” to the benefit of others.