Sister of Mercy Awarded 2015 Honorary Degree

May 8, 2015
Posted by
Kirsten Swanson
Sister Cora Marie Billings, RSM and President Kathleen Owens

Gwynedd Mercy University presented Sister Cora Marie Billings, RSM, with an honorary degree at its 66th Commencement on May 9, 2015.

Sister Cora Marie, who was the first African American to join to the Religious Sisters of Mercy, Mid-Atlantic Community, has dedicated her life to combating racism and inequality. She is the great-granddaughter of a slave for Jesuit Priests at Georgetown University. Once, as the only African American student in her West Philadelphia Catholic grade school, Sister Cora Marie was denied Communion by a priest. She let that experience and her family history motivate her to become a force of change. 

Upon entering the Sisters of Mercy, now Mid-Atlantic Community in 1956, Sister Cora Marie became the first African American nun to teach in Philadelphia Catholic Schools and the first to become a member of the Canon Law Society. She attended classes at what was then Gwynedd-Mercy College and earned her baccalaureate degree from Villanova University in 1964. 

In 1981, Sister Cora Marie served as Campus Minister at Virginia State University, before becoming the Director of the Richmond Diocesan Office for Black Catholics in 1984. In 1990, she became the first African American woman to be the leader of a church in the United States (and subsequently an answer to a question on the television show Jeopardy) after the St. Elizabeth Parish in North Richmond lost its resident priest. 

Sister Cora Marie has earned numerous awards, including the Dominion Strong Men and Women: Excellence in Leadership Award in 2009, the Urban League of Greater Richmond’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, the National Conference for Community and Justice Humanitarian Award in 2001 and the Virginia State NAACP’s Maggie L. Walker Award.

At 75 years old, Sister Cora Marie shows no signs of slowing down. She currently serves as a member of the Anti-Racism Transformation Team for the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.