Wisconsin Women of Color in Religion

March 4, 2021

Women of color have shaped Wisconsin history whether it be in politics, religion, business, arts, or science. To celebrate Women’s History Month we look at some of the women who have made our community great. This week we take a look at women who have changed the face in religion.

Dr. Sudie E. Tatum

Sudie E. Tatum was a high school dropout who became an educator. Active in church leadership here, she also felt called to build a new church and school far away in Haiti.

The former Sudie Ethel Ware was born in Harrell, AK. Later raised in Milwaukee, she never forgot the mixed messages she heard in school.

Tatum later transferred to Lincoln High School, but dropped out during her junior year to marry Earl Tatum in 1938. Years later, she earned her diploma, after attending classes at a vocational school. In 1965, she graduated from the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, qualified to work in both education and social work.

Tatum began teaching adult basic education at Milwaukee Area Technical College. For her it was an opportunity to combine “education, social work, guidance and missionary work all together,” she said in 1967.

She went on to earn a master’s degree in education administration and a doctorate in theology.

She long led the Women’s Auxiliary of the General Baptist State Convention of Wisconsin, which represents 40 churches in Wisconsin and thousands of women.

Dr. Mary Jean Lewis-Jiles

Dr. Mary Jean Lewis-Jiles is Pastor of the Christian Fellowship Community Church and Executive Director and founder of V.O.I.C.E., a faith-based non-profit organization that serves people who are victims of crimes and have spinal cord injuries. She holds worship services at the Milwaukee County Jail twice a month and is a part-time chaplain at Froedtert Hospital.

In 2011, Mary Jean was the first female and the fourth officially elected vice-president of the Wisconsin General Baptist State Convention Parent Body. She was also the first female president of the Wisconsin General Baptist State Congress of Christian Education, Inc. She is the widow of the late Deacon Eddie Jiles. Mary Jean is a mother, grandmother of three, and great grandmother of two girls.

Sr. Callista Robinson

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, Callista attended Catholic schools.

After graduating from high school, Sister Callista entered St. Francis Convent in Little Falls, MN and became a postulant, which is the first step to becoming a nun. She then was 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, MN to begin studies at St. Catherine College, now St. Catherine University. After one year, Sister Callista was transferred to Moorhead, MN 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, WI to do similar work. While there, she enrolled in Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin 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.

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 Patricia Rogers

Sister Patricia Rogers, OP, was the fifth of nine children born in Fort Smith, AR to Corrine (Parker), a domestic housekeeper and William Rogers, a laborer. Growing up in rural Arkansas, Sister Patricia said that she was very passionate about marching band, civil rights and becoming a teacher. She received her diploma from North Side High School in 1966 and enrolled at Arkansas Agricultural Mechanical & Normal College, which merged with the University of Arkansas system in 1972 and was renamed the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Sister Patricia said during college she had wanted to be a teacher, but instead of completing her practice teaching she accepted a position in the data processing department of the Chicago office of Blue Cross/Blue Shield in 1971.

After five years with Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Sister Patricia still felt called to teach, and was hired at Visitation High School, an all-girls Catholic school in Chicago. She taught algebra and geometry to grades 9-11 for seven years. The students were primarily African American and Latina, but the teachers were mostly white.

Sister Patricia prayed for two years that the sisters who ran the school would be blessed with a sister of African American descent. After the two years, Sister Patricia felt that God was calling her. She went for study and discernment to the Mother House in Sinsinawa, WI for a time of living in community and prayer. She took her final vows in 1986, which completed her training to be a Catholic nun.

For the past seven years, Sister Patricia has directed the Dominican Center in Milwaukee’s north side Amani neighborhood. In that role, she has helped to empower local leaders for plans to revitalize Amani. Her behind- the-scenes guidance and coaching have helped residents learn how to represent their own interests and implement new projects, such as the restoration of Moody Park neighborhood beautification project.

Rev. Dr. Betty S. Hayes

The personal spiritual journey of Rev. Dr. Betty S. (Ware) Hayes began in her native town of Hampton, AR, when she confessed Christ at the age of 12. She attended several educational institutions to prepare herself for a life of ministry including Grace Theological Seminary, Laris, SC; Christian Leadership University, Elma, NY; Gospel Ministry Outreach Theological Institute, Houston, TX; Trinity College, Brookfield, WI; University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Moody Bible Institute and Concordia University all of Milwaukee. This education resulted in her earning Bachelor of Ministry, Master of Divinity and Doctorate of Divinity degrees.

She accepted a call into the ministry in 1974 in Milwaukee, receiving her minister’s license under the pastorates of Rev. Harvey C. Momon of the Union Hill Baptist Church. She was a member there for 20 years. Her ordination was received under the pastorate of Rev. Harold Turner with a panel of 16 pastors/ministers.

At Holy Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Milwaukee, she can be more hands-on every week. Dr. Hayes delivers the Word during Sunday Morning Worship and Tuesday Mid-Week services. and performs all of the other pastoral duties associated with Christian ministry. Dr. Hayes and the Hayes’ Evangelistic Team also appear bi-weekly on the WGLB-AM radio 1560 program “Words to Grow By.”

Dr. Hayes had the spiritual vision to organize and pastor the Holy Mount Carmel Baptist Church in March 1981. The new edifice was completed in 1990. Dr. Hayes believes that she was the first female Baptist pastor to break ground and build a new church in Milwaukee. That would not be the last time that she would demonstrate leadership as a strong woman of God. Dr. Hayes served on the Board of Management and was elected Vice President of the Milwaukee Association of the American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin. She also served as Director of Women in Ministry Full Gospel Baptist Churches Fellowship, Midwest region, and was elected to their National Board of the Ministerial Alliance under Bishop Paul S Morton; and the Project Focal Point Board of Directors.

Rev. Geraldine Sheets-Howard

Reverend Geraldine Sheets-Howard’s commitment to her God, her family, and her community is evident in everything she does. Rev. Sheets-Howard is the Executive Director at the Provence of St. Joseph—House of Peace (HOP), where she is known as Ms. Gerri.

Gerri was born and raised in Milwaukee. After graduating with honors from West Division High School, Gerri attended Lakeland College in Sheboygan. She completed a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration in 1986. Twenty years later Gerri earned a Master’s degree in Religious Studies from Cardinal Stritch. She will soon complete her Master of Divinity degree from Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Elm Grove, WI.

In June 2001, she took a temporary position at the HOP as the assistant to the Executive Director, Mr. Claufen. What was intended to be a three week job, turned into a six month commitment. Gerri almost took a job with the State of Wisconsin in January of 2002. But Mr. Claufen convinced her to continue on with the HOP and she was promoted to Assistant Director. Following Mr. Claufen’s retirement, Brother Mark Carrico was appointed as Executive Director. However, his religious order (the Fathers of St. Joseph) reassigned him to Detroit in October 2009. It was then that Gerri stepped into the position and she has been there ever since.

The HOP is a non-profit organization that serves the poor and marginalized members of our community. By attending to the most basic human needs, the staff members and volunteers at the HOP help individuals and families work toward self-sufficiency. The organization offers a slew of programs that address physical, emotional, and spiritual health. As Executive Director, Gerri carries the ultimate responsibility to ensure that every aspect of each program is working correctly. She supervises the day-today operations and oversees all staff and volunteers. Gerri helps implement the type of programs that fulfill the mission of the HOP.

In addition to being a wife, mother, and professional, Gerri became a licensed ordained minister this past October. She was recently selected to serve as Pastor of Bradford Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church. Rev. Gerri served at St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church as an Associate Minister for five years before her final ordination.

Rev. Volina Cross-Dukes

Rev. Volina Cross-Dukes recalls that as a child growing up in Kosciusko, MS, her parents Arthur W. and Piccolar (Hutchins) Cross had to coerce her to leave the “Mourners Bench,” for children not yet joined to the church at the Little Hill Missionary Baptist Church during a summer revival.

As a youth Rev. Cross- Dukes waited for a sign but it wouldn’t happen for many years later. As a result of that experience Rev. Cross-Dukes went to theology school, graduated and became one of the first African American female pastors of a mainline denomination in Milwaukee.

During her time as pastor, the congregation became more involved in the local community. One of the ways Rev. Cross-Dukes and the congregation accomplished this was to implement the “Adopt A School Program” with the Townsend Street Elementary School across the street from Trinity.

Rev. Cross-Dukes is the published author of “Getting Honest: A Memoir of a Spiritual Journey.” She is a past president of the pastor’s caucus for MICAH (Milwaukee Inner City Churches Allied for Hope).

Rev. Judith T. Lester

Milwaukee native Rev. Judith T. Lester said she was an introverted child who loved to read and write: short stories, journal entries, just about anything, but she never dreamed of becoming a published author, much less an honoree in the field of religion. Her family did not attend church often and therefore only as an adult did she come to the conclusion that she had an “undeveloped faith.”

Rev. Lester was one of six sisters born to the union of J.B. and Bernice Taylor. While Rev. Lester was in junior high school, the family moved to East St. Louis, IL where Rev. Lester received her high school diploma from East St. Louis Senior High. During that era, there were few schools that offered extracurricular activities for girls, but Rev. Lester said she enjoyed playing in a community basketball program and was a member of the National Honor Society. The family moved back to Milwaukee within four years when Bernice died.

After relocating to Milwaukee, Rev. Lester began attending Community Baptist Church around 1982 and Rev. Lester was shocked by how uninformed she was about the bible.

She later married and has two adult children: Justin R. Lester, and Camille B. Lester.

For years, she prayed about God’s purpose for her life. One night she believes God woke her up and chose her as a vessel for his word. For quite a while, she told no one of her revelation.

When she finally told her pastor, he said that in order for people to take Rev. Lester seriously, she would need to go to seminary and earn a degree. She enrolled in school and by the following year she received her ministerial license which enabled her to preach and perform other ministerial duties at a specific congregation under the supervision of a pastor.

Rev. Lester earned her Bachelor’s degree in Ministry from Master’s Divinity School in 2000 and earned a Master’s Degree from Master’s International University of Divinity in 2002.

She did not realize her talent for writing until she was asked by The Milwaukee Times Weekly Newspaper to write a Christian column in 2001. It was her weekly column in the Times that was instrumental in her talent being noticed by the National Baptist Sunday School Publishing Board (SSPB). The organization offered her the opportunity to write bible lessons. For the last 15 years, she has served as a writer for the SSPB in Nashville. She writes a wide range of educational learning materials from youth to adult. Rev. Lester is also a is also a published author of the soon-to-be released book: “A GOSPEL People: Bible Studies for Youth Around the Globe.”

Rev. Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld

In 2018, for the first time in the history of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), a woman of color was nominated to be the bishop of the synod. Though she was not elected, Rev. Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld is proud of being that woman. She was among the final seven candidates.

Rev. Thomas-Breitfeld is the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Waukesha, a position she has held since 1992. She succeeded the founding pastor of that church. Her congregation has 71 families.

A native of New York City, she holds a Psychology degree from Cornell University and a Master of Divinity degree from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. She was ordained in 1980.

She then accepted a call to be the Associate Pastor at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, where she remained until moving to her current assignment in Waukesha.

She was involved in developing the spiritual component of some programs at Community Memorial Hospital in Menomonee Falls and is the volunteer chaplain for the Wisconsin State Patrol’s 2nd District in southeastern Wisconsin.

She serves on the Greater Milwaukee Synod’s Meru Partnership Committee, which has an ongoing relationship with the diocese of Meru in Tanzania. She has been to Meru three times and is involved in two international consultations dealing with that area.

Her husband, Rev. Fred Taylor-Breitfeld, is the pastor of Jackson Park Lutheran Church on Milwaukee’s south side. The couple have two adult children, Sean and Leota, both of whom live in New York City.