Sisters of Charity Federation Archives

Sister Louis Marie Bryan, S.C. Oral History




Date edited:

Sister Mary Ellen Gleason, SC
Sister Louis Marie Bryan, SC
January 26, 1998
Sister Noreen Neary, SC
October 28, 2020

Sister Mary Ellen: Sister Louis, perhaps we could talk about the educational preparation
that the sisters who volunteered to serve in the Virgin Islands received.
Sister Louis Marie:

That is not exactly an easy question for me to answer. [I enrolled in] Saints Peter and Paul
School [in Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands] in 1933 and my first encounter with the sisters was to
have them prepare me for first communion with Sister Gertrude Agnes [Goode]. I was in the
public schools, first and second grades. And in third grade, I went to Sts. Peter and Paul
School and was educated by the Sisters of Charity from third grade to eighth grade.
My experience with the sisters was that they were excellent teachers. They were excellently
prepared to give me what was truly a grammar school education, not just elementary. And I
know that because the reading and writing skills, particularly that they taught me, have lasted
me my entire life. I remember learning how to diagram sentences and to really understand
how to read and how to write, to comprehend whatever you read and to write, perfect
grammar. We graduated in eighth grade and we had only from first to eighth grade in
those days.
And when I left Catholic school, we went to the one public high school in the Virgin
Islands…in St. Thomas, the Charlotte Amalie High School. And those of us who had
come up from Sts. Peter and Paul were head and shoulders above the majority of the
class. That's not to say the others weren't well educated, but we seemed to have been a
touch above the public school. And we had excellent teachers in the public high school,
excellent. So that when we went on from there to the college, we were very well
prepared. But as everyone knows, the preparation has to begin in elementary school and
grammar school. So, to answer your question, my guess would be based on my
experience that they were eminently well prepared.
Sister Mary Ellen: I see. Then, when did you leave the Virgin Islands? Was it
immediately after high school?
Sister Louis Marie: You mean for entrance into the community? Or what?
Sister Mary Ellen: Even before entrance…
Sister Louis Marie: OK, I left the Virgin Islands in 1945. And graduated from high
school in June 1945 and left the islands in August 1945.


Sister Mary Ellen: I see. And then you came to the United States…I mean to study…
Sister Louis Marie:
I began my undergraduate education at New York University, the School of Education in
Washington Square, NY, but that I had to terminate the beginning of the second
semester freshman year because I had a serious eye problem which flared up and I had
to withdraw from school for half a year. In September 1946 I transferred to the
undergraduate college of liberal arts at Howard University in Washington, DC and
studied there with a major in sociology and a minor in economics, then graduated cum
laude in 1949 with an AB in Liberal Arts, Sociology.
Sister Mary Ellen: OK, and then I know you entered the congregation in the 1950s, so
there's a gap…
Sister Louis Marie: There is…
Sister Mary Ellen Gleason: So, were you out working…at that time? Or did you do more
studying? Did you…
Sister Louis Marie:
Well, immediately on graduation from Howard University College of Liberal Arts, I
returned to the Virgin Islands and worked as a child welfare worker in the Department
of Social Welfare. Then I realized that I wanted to do social work, but I didn't have
nearly the educational preparation to do that. I had been assigned as a child welfare
worker to work with dependent or neglected or delinquent children…a mixed bag. And I
loved the children, but I felt so inadequate to their needs. At the same time, the
government of the Virgin Islands was just getting the extension of the public assistance
program to the islands and had just established a Division of Child Welfare and they
would pay for a master's degree in social work on the condition that the applicant would work a
year for each thousand dollars they paid. Well, it was right down my alley because l had wanted
to work at home. So I went to what was then The New York School of Social Work. It is now
the Columbia University School of Social Work and it was a wonderful experience. The school
was located in the Carnegie mansion at 91st Street and Fifth Avenue. Yes, it was ideal for
So, I thoroughly enjoyed that master's level program and, for my master's thesis, I chose to
write a history of the development of public welfare in the Virgin Islands because we had
been owned by Denmark for two hundred and fifty years and our... although we were an
American territory and we had the American public welfare system, the overtones, the
attitudes and even some of the held-over programs reflected the Scandinavian approach to
social welfare. So that thesis was a joy to do. A very useful piece of work.
So then, I went home on completion of that and got my job back, first in child welfare, but


then pretty soon I was asked to be a Supervisor of Public Assistance. So, I was in social work
on the islands and enjoying it very much when low and behold in 1955, January 3rd, the
newspaper carried an announcement that the United States had extended its Fulbright
Scholarship program to the Virgin Islands and people could apply. I had a master's degree. I
was free and single, uncommitted and I wanted to go to Europe. So, I applied for a
Fulbright Scholarship to go to Denmark to study the Scandinavian social welfare system
and programs and to see what tie-ins there were related to the islands and our systems. I
was awarded a Fulbright and left for a year's study in Denmark and that was exciting. It
was an independent study program. I went with other Fulbright scholars who were in
different fields and we all, for the first month, studied Danish language, Danish history,
Danish culture and had field trips to enhance that. I lived in a student residence with a
Danish speaking student, so the language experience was real for me. I was able to use it
and use it fluently. And then I planned my study with the help of professional social
workers over there to research the literature and to visit different program sites. So that as
I read about care for the elderly, for instance, I could go to a facility that cared for the
elderly and see how it was carried out. It was a fascinating experience. So I did that
piece of research then after the study period ended, I toured Europe with some other
students for two months or so.
Then I got home and went back to Social Welfare Department and the very next year,
1957, I petitioned to enter the Sisters of Charity and was accepted. That brings me into
entrance and the studying didn't stop there.
Sister Mary Ellen: I know you had some very rich experiences after you had entered the
Sisters of Charity where you could use a lot of this educational background you already
Sister Louis Marie:
So I entered [the Congregation] with a master's degree in social work and my first
assignment was to teach in the Juniorate…which is a preparatory school for girls…and
that was a little bit funny. I had to teach intermediate algebra and solid geometry because
my high school transcript had showed good marks in math. But I wasn't a math major, so
that was a bit of a challenge. And I did my best with a lot of help from Sister Barbara
Garland who was a novice. But the algebra course was for elective students and they were
very bright. I think they knew more about it than I, but we managed.
After my year of novitiate I was asked to teach in the sociology department [of the College
of Saint Elizabeth] and that was much more in line with what I felt able to do competently. I
taught student nurses and I taught the junior professed sisters’ Saturday classes.
After I made final vows, my first mission was to St. Mary's Hospital [in Passaic, NJ] to work
in the Child Center. But I was out of teaching and back in natural social work. But this time
it was clinical social work. And my clinical preparation had not been much because on the
master’s level I was being prepared for child welfare work for the broader scope, rather than
narrow clinical. There were two very fine clinics, one for child guidance, emotionally


disturbed children and work with their parents as well, and the other was for retarded
persons in the Bergen and Passaic County areas, diagnostic service and some counseling.
Both clinics were staffed with top-notch specialists and the diagnostic work over at the
retarded children's clinic was hooked right into St. Mary's Hospital so you could get a full
complement of medical and clinical work along with psychological and social study. That
was a most enriching experience. But I was a sort of the junior member on the team, if you
will. The only religious…maybe the only Catholic even. Certainly the only Black
woman…and not, as I said, trained for psychiatric social work. But then I did a lot of course
work at a mental health center in New York and that was very, very helpful. So I had a rich,
I'd say almost about twelve years actual training and preparation and experience in clinical
work. And at the center, we worked as a team with a child psychiatrist, clinical psychologist
and psychiatric social worker, so it was one of the richest experiences I could have dreamed
Well, St. Mary's decided that we would develop an inpatient unit, so the child center would
be closed in favor of inpatient and that's where I felt that, look, if I'm going to be part of this,
I need to be up and running with everybody else. So I asked and received permission from
the Congregation to work towards a doctor of social welfare. I applied to Smith College
School of Social Work because they had a very good clinical program and my application
was accepted, but then I was invited up for a personal interview and that did not go well at
all. When I went up, the atmosphere was very, very cool. I didn't feel welcome at all. And
the people who interviewed me, the first woman who interviewed me made it quite clear that
if I were going to attend there as a student in the doctoral program, I would have to wear
secular clothes. Well, that didn't sit well with me at all. I, for me, wearing the habit of Sister
of Charity was important. The community wasn't requiring me to wear a habit. We were free
to wear what we chose. And it was my choice to wear a habit and veil – deliberately so
because I had felt from my clinical practice at St. Mary's Child Center that the habit made a
difference with people with emotional problems. For some persons, the habit reassured
them. They felt they knew what a nun was and that I could be trusted with their innermost
secrets and pains and worries and so on. For other people, the habit was a…not a deterrent,
but a stimulus. They would be angry and they would be…you know, and the anger would
come forth because of whatever feelings they had about religion or habits or nuns or
whatever…things as being Black, some people would react to that. Anyway, I was not about
to change my choice to suit Smith. And furthermore, I wasn't sure they wanted me because
they were kind of derogatory and, you know, they said if you need a wardrobe, we could
give you one…
Sister Mary Ellen: Oh, dear…
Sister Louis Marie:
Yes, so I figured, well, this I don't need. So I came back and decided I was not going to
Smith because I wanted to wear my habit and so I reapplied to Columbia, my alma mater.
And although it was late in the day, Columbia was into taking black students in their doctoral
program because Columbia was sitting on the edge of Harlem and making a big push to
include more minorities in their student body. So, I got in with no trouble. The only thing


was, Columbia's program was not "clinical." I could make it in case work, but it was not as
highly clinical. But it was a good program. But more important was God's handling this
because when I went to Columbia, I decided to live at the International House where I had
lived as a secular on the master's level and where I had loved the experience. So, I went to
International House, habit and all, and found there a delightful sister, a Sister of Saint Ann, a
native of India. Anyway, she was bright as anything. She already had a Ph.D. in economics,
but to teach in India, she needed a Ph.D. or some education courses, so she was going to
teach in Pelham…Sister Mary Benjamin was her name. She was in habit, too. And we got to
be great friends and we got to be accepted at “I House” as two little nuns…
“I House,” at the same time, had changed in composition from when I'd been there in the early
1950s…There were many more Africans and Asians and…it always was international…the
preponderance in earlier years had been European. So now there are African Americans and
everything. So, of course, we had a Black caucus going. We made a contribution there. But
at school, at Columbia, the campus now was moved up from out of the Carnegie
mansion and on to the Morningside Heights campus. And they had, on the master's level,
a very active Black caucus, a Black students’ organization and the few Blacks of us who
were on a doctoral level met with them because they needed lots of help. Many of them
had been admitted without the kind of solid preparation you need…particularly
communication skills, so we would tutor them and make weekend retreats with them.
I, then, got an orientation that I had not had when I came to the Sisters of Charity in the
1950s. I was on this campus [the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth] when you saw very
few blacks. Very few…even in service positions. And there was one other Black sister,
Lorena Tyson. And then when I went to St. Mary's Hospital…the clients who were from
around there were very few Blacks. So I had not been attuned to the Black situation
really. But when I went to “I House” and back to Columbia and met the Blacks there…it
was the education I needed much more than a clinical education to put me in touch with
the world that was. And…it was the late 1960s…and right around that time, the National
Black Catholic Clergy Caucus got organized in April '68 and the National Black Catholics
Conference in August '68. So, by that time, I was finding out who I am as a Black religious
woman and it was a marvelous gift from God. I mean, how the pieces fit
together…unbelievable. So with Afro studies, the course work was good, but the living
experience was infinitely more important. And I finished the course work in two years and
had a dissertation to do and I was really tired of being a student then. And my job at St.
Mary's…I left because I thought I was going to have go into the inpatient psychiatric work.
My job was no longer existent.
And one time I visited Convent Station and [Sister Hildegarde Marie Mahoney, president of
the College of Saint Elizabeth] said, "I wish you were free." I said, "Why?" She said,
"Because we need somebody for the Upward Bound program." And I said, "I am free." So I
came back to Convent as a Director of the Upward Bound program, succeeding Sister
Lucille Anne [Egan] and I was beautifully prepared for it. And it was a thrilling and exciting
experience and the program was one of the finest in the region. I mean, we were rated as the
third best for many years. And it faced many challenges. We ran an all-girls program,
working with "disadvantaged" minority students, mostly Black from inner-city Newark. And


then, after a few years, the government decided that the programs had to be co-ed. We either
would run a co-ed program of get out of the [program]. So, I prayed a lot…and was consulted
and the President of the College and government agreed we could do co­ed program. So I
prayed mightily. The program would be co-ed, but the college would remain single sex. So
we ran it and we ran it successfully. The women in Santa Rita Hall and the men at
[indecipherable]. And it got to be a great program. We lost the funding for it…I do not know
why, except that many people in the field thought well, with cycle sight of our ten years that
it was time for somebody else... I moved from Upward Bound to the Educational
Opportunity Fund directorship then and the person who succeeded me at Upward Bound
failed to get funding for the program. So, I moved to the EOF briefly... maybe about a
year…and then was invited to go home to the Virgin Islands.
Anyway, for my doctoral dissertation then, since I had finished the course work and had
worked with Upward Bound, I got permission to do a study on what impact the Upward
Bound program had on students who were coming from inner-cities north at the time of
Black liberation. The study was to explore which influence would exert more influence
on young people. The Black Liberation Movement – they were in the thick of it…in
Newark…shattering bombs and everything during the Black Revolution – or Upward
Bound. Upward Bound was an invitation to them to join the establishment, you know,
to become part of the mainstream. And Black Liberation was not going that route.
So, it was exciting to work with my own measuring instrument and everything. I got to
study population, not just from our program, but from Princeton, Rutgers and our college
segment which had been initially for women. Princeton had been initially all men. Rutgers
was always co-ed, so it was good. Anyway, the study showed that more people responded to
the establishment poll than the other poll. Anyhow, it was a good study. And students in the
social work program in the islands have used both the master's thesis and the doctoral
dissertation as research documents for some of their studies. So that's gratifying.
Sister Mary Ellen: Oh, of course it is.
Sister Louis Marie:
Anyway, I got an invitation to go home and I was given permission to accept it. And my
first invitation was to serve as a member of the parish team at Saints Peter and Paul. And I
said to the pastor, a native of the Virgin Islands, "I haven't lived in a parish for the last
twenty years. I don't even know what…" He said, "You don't have to know." He said,
"You'd be on my team and you'll just do it." The Congregation asked for something in
writing, so he sent a list of ten things. He said, "You can do any, all or none of these." And
so I went home and was winging it. And that pastor got changed the next spring.
Sister Mary Ellen: What were some of the things you had to do... that he had on that list to
Sister Louis Marie: Develop a community in the western end of the island. People who lived
out west were coming up to the cathedral and he thought maybe it was time to develop a new
parish down there…develop some kind of community. So we used to have weekend Masses


and [unintelligible], but the people really did not want that. They lived down there but they
worked in town and they wanted to be part of the cathedral. Some of the other things that I
did was a prison ministry. Got a group of people who wanted to go to a jail and we went
every week and that, too, was a good experience. We would sing and preach the
scriptures…pray with them and gosh, what are some of the other things we did?
Eucharistic minister, the usual pastoral things. But it didn't go too well because it was not
really a team. The pastor was a very strong man and some people…you have to be a
team…you have to have a team personality. I don't think he was a team person. So I wasn't
integrated into any team.
But the bishop of the diocese, [Bishop Edward John Harper of the Diocese of Saint
Thomas], had always been addressing having me in a diocese and he had written to the
Congregation years before to ask them to let me come, since I was a social worker and they
had told him no. So, when I got there and I wasn't too busy after the pastor was transferred,
the bishop asked me would I serve as a family life director. He had no family life program. I
said, "Sure." And through the bishop, I learned what natural family planning was. He said to
me there's a conference on the [Billings Ovulation Method]. I didn't even know what the man
was talking about. And would you go? I said, "Sure." So I went to New York and I ran into
[Sister Mary Rosalie Curran, SC] who was teaching NFP (Natural Family Planning). And
she gave me a crash course and I met big name people in the field and so that started me off on
preparation to become qualified as a Natural Family Planning instructor. You had to take
special training and I got trained by some of the best people and went back to my diocese.
Then one thing led to another. We started a permanent program there and I was asked to
show the faculty, in fact to teach them, you know, basic counseling skills that they might be
called on to use and I also taught them all about humanity, so that they could be prepared to
teach people that. We graduated a lot of human sexuality education for young people in our
schools and in the public schools for other church groups and I mean non-denominational
groups. That was a big thing then.
So, family life apostolate was getting into a lot of church work that required social work
skills and at the same time I served on a lot of boards and committees in the civic
community, you know, as a good representative for the Church's teaching and as a native and
as a woman. So then when our second bishop was appointed, [Bishop Sean O’Malley, OFM
Cap.], he asked me to serve as Chancellor for the Diocese. “Now look,” I said, “I only know
what a chancery is, Bishop Harper hadn't had a chancery per se. He did his work in his
office at the bishop's residence. I helped, as his assistant, but with, you know…” So Bishop
O'Malley said, "If I can be bishop, you can be chancellor." [unintelligible] That I was a
native and a Black. I was a woman. I was religious. I was a social worker. A combination of
many, many things that God had put into my life, you know. So I was placed to be of
service and never quite knew... never quite had a job description for chancellor, so it ended
up I did whatever the bishop called on me to do.
So there then we had Hurricane Hugo. And that knocked St. Croix for a loop. And the
Catholic Social Services had gotten a small grant to do a mental health program in St. Croix.
And with the hurricane, it could not get started. It was impossible. So Bishop asked me to
rewrite the proposal, but to restructure it so that it could be done on St. Thomas. So, I did that


and then began to serve as a head of the mental health program, funded by the government
but run by the church. So I did mental health work for a while, using all the background
experience and preparation I had ten years ago. And then, what happened next? Next, we
got a new bishop. [Bishop Elliot Griffin Thomas], a high school classmate of mine. He was
in the public school and he had been at the top of his class and he said when the students
came up from St. Peter and Paul, try as he could, he couldn't get further than number
three in the line-up.
Sister Mary Ellen: I see…
Sister Louis Marie:
We've been good friends all along. So, his story is fascinating, too. He was a convert
from Catholicism. Anyway, Bishop Elliot Thomas is our first Black bishop and from the
area and he had been unanimously elected administrator by the priests there until the
Pope named him bishop. Well, as administrator, he inherited me as chancellor. I enjoyed
immensely working with Bishop Thomas, but then in March 1996, the Catholic Charities of
the Virgin Islands ran into some serious problems and Bishop asked me would I be interim
director while they tried to get it sorted out. So, I served for a year as interim director and
chancellor, and then by 1997 I knew I couldn't do both. So I asked Bishop to relieve me of
being chancellor so that I could give full attention to Catholic Charities which so needed
what I had to offer. I was a professional social worker, I had a doctorate in social welfare,
which wasn't clinical, which is what I needed for this kind of administrative work and so he
said, "yes."
So, as of March 1997, I am serving as the Executive Director of Catholic Charities in the
Virgin Islands. And that brings us up to date.
Sister Mary Ellen: Oh, fantastic. I want thank you very, very much, Sister Louis, for sharing
all these wonderful experiences.


Dublin Core


Sister Louis Marie Bryan, S.C. Oral History


Bryan, Sister Louis Marie, S.C.; U.S. Virgin Islands; social work; Black sisters


Description of her education, her career in social work, her experiences as a Black sister


Bryan, Sister Louis Marie, S.C.; Gleason, Sister Mary Ellen, S.C.


Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth


January 26, 1998


Neary, Sister Noreen, S.C. (Editor)


Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth






Oral History


Sister Louis Marie Bryan, S.C. describes her early life, education and experiences as a Black sister


January 26, 1998

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Gleason, Sister Mary Ellen


Bryan, Sister Louis Marie

Original Format



Bryan, Sister Louis Marie, S.C.; Gleason, Sister Mary Ellen, S.C., “Sister Louis Marie Bryan, S.C. Oral History,” Sisters of Charity Federation Archives, accessed July 14, 2024,


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