Since third grade, Sister Callista Robinson has been preparing for a life of service and ministry in the Catholic Church. Born to Forest and Rosina Robinson, she grew up on Chicago’s South Side with three brothers. She recalls her upbringing as being family-oriented, warm and she lived in a neighborhood where residents looked out for each other. Growing up, she attended Catholic grade and high schools.
“My brothers and I used to play ‘school’ and I would be the teacher, dressing up like the nuns in my school. The nuns were my influence from attending Catholic grade school. I saw them as kind people who tried to help us. They knew our families and we had good relationships with them. Then, in high school, the ‘call’ became even stronger, and I knew that was where I belonged,” she said.
At one point, Sister Callista met the Mother General of her community and was impressed by her kind and caring demeanor. At the time, African Americans couldn’t just go into any religious order; they had to identify orders that would accept them.
“In addition to meeting Mother General, I was impressed with the Franciscan order because of the social justice issues most Franciscans embrace. A priest friend wrote to several orders on behalf of three African Americans, which included me, and most of the responses were negative. The one from Mother General Thomasine was positive and beautiful, so the priest wrote back to her that there were a few other African American girls, including me, who wanted to join the Franciscan order. Father drove us to visit with her and we were in awe of her kindness, friendliness and concern. After a second meeting with her at St. Francis Convent in Little Falls, Minnesota, we began the paperwork to enter the Franciscan order,” she said.
The process for becoming a nun involves several steps. After graduating from high school, Sister Callista entered St. Francis Convent in Little Falls and became a postulant which is the first step to becoming a nun. She was then a novice for two years, learning about the community, the church and the meaning behind becoming a Franciscan. She then pronounced her first vows and was assigned to the House of Studies in St. Paul, Minnesota to begin studies at St. Catherine College, now St. Catherine University. After one year, Sister Callista was transferred to Moorhead, Minnesota where she was assigned to become a switchboard operator and receptionist at St. Ansgar Hospital.
Sister Callista worked there for nine years, before being transferred to Cudahy, Wisconsin to do similar work. While there, she enrolled in Edgewood College in Madison, WI and studied to become an elementary school teacher. She graduated in 1975 and began her teaching ministry at Harambee Community School. During this time, Sister Callista studied at Marquette University, earning a master’s degree in education.
Sister Callista is known for her tireless efforts as coordinator of the Brother Booker Ashe Lay Ministry Program and as assistant administrator of the Adult Learning Center. She also chairs the Black Religious and Clergy of Wisconsin and is a founding member of the National Black Sisters Conference. At her parish, St. Martin de Porres, she serves as lector and chairperson of the prayer and worship committee. Sister Callista said that venues like the National Black Sisters Conference, of which she is one of the founders, changed her life.
“Black Catholic sisters came together in 1968, under the leadership of Sister Martin de Porres Grey, to determine what we could do to help and support one another and recruit others. We recently celebrated our 50-year anniversary as an organization and we are still going strong. While some members have passed, we still have more than 120 active members who understand that we can’t just sit back in our convents. We have to be in the church and active in the community,” she said.
In addition to the lengthy process to become a nun, Sister Callista said that, as an African American, she felt a need to go above and beyond that which was required. Her lifelong efforts in educating youth and adults as a teacher, principal, and chief executive administrator at Harambee Community School have made a powerful impact in the Milwaukee community. She currently serves as assistant administrator of the Adult Learning Center, located at St. Francis of Assisi Parish and also coordinator of the Brother Booker Ashe Lay Ministry Program for African American Catholics who want to become lay ministers in their parishes.
“Certainly as an African American you always know that you have to do more. You always have to prove yourself; you don’t just do the average or minimum, whether you choose a career in sports, music or religion. Whatever career or vocation you choose, you have to study harder and longer. You must be able to speak to issues and, when you have opportunities to be ‘at the table’, you must know what you are talking about. In my religious community I am the only African American in this order, and I’m very adamant about helping our sisters learn more about our history and the struggles that continue.
“I want to be of service—especially to African Americans—and to all people. I want to be known for giving back to the African American community from which I came,” she said.