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Ross man earns award for book about the New Orleans Sisters

| Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
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Edward T. Brett of Ross Township, professor emeritus of history at La Roche College in McCandless, wrote the book 'The New Orleans Sisters of the Holy Family: African American Missionaries to the Garifuna of Belize,” which won an award from ForeWord Reviews.

What started as a plan to write an article or two about an order of sisters turned into an award-winning book for Ross Township resident Edward Brett, a professor emeritus of history at La Roche College in McCandless.

Recently, he learned that his book “The New Orleans Sisters of the Holy Family: African American Missionaries to the Garifuna of Belize” was named the 2012 Bronze Award winner in the religion category by ForeWord Reviews, a magazine and book-review service focusing on books published by independent presses.

In addition to showing the book “rises above others in its genre,” the award provides a new marketing opportunity for a book that no longer is “new,” said Karen Connick, head of publisher and author services for ForeWord Reviews.

Brett's book had been one of 13 finalists selected from 30 entries in the religion category.

The work tells the story of some special women “who struggled against racism in society and patriarchy in the church, and yet made tremendous achievements,” Brett said.

Founded in New Orleans in 1842, the sisters were the first African American Catholics to serve as missionaries. They ministered to the people of Belize, formerly British Honduras, from 1898 to 2008, until the devastation of Hurricane Katrina brought them home.

Having grown up in Brooklyn, N.Y., Brett admitted he never spoke to an African American in his neighborhood because there weren't any. On one trip to Manhattan, he saw two black sisters requesting donations. His mother didn't give anything to them and said, “They weren't real nuns.”

She wasn't a racist, he said; she just didn't know. Many people didn't in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Yet all the while, the Sisters of the Holy Family were working in New Orleans, where Brett lived for a time, and Central America.

“Being an historian, a start on one topic opens so much I never knew before,” Brett said.

He had wondered if the order was better received among the Belizean people. His research proved him right. He searched the order's archives in New Orleans. There, he said he learned the sisters were successful because they operated in a low-key manner, and they learned how to negotiate with the white power structure inside and outside the church.

“There were too many racists out there and in all the churches,” said Brett, 68.

Just over 100 sisters are left in the order.

“The sisters are jubilant about this book,” Brett said.

Brett also is pleased about the recognition the book has received, although he was surprised to win the award.

“All entrants are first sorted through by a group of our editors,” Connick said. “They select the finalists, and those books are sent to one bookseller and one librarian who determine the winners. Many have been judging the same genre for many years.”

Brett's interest in Latin America started when he taught at the College of Santa Fe, a Catholic college in New Mexico, from 1979 to 1984.

He learned that a friend's brother had been murdered in Guatemala. But before he died, the man wrote a letter explaining why he couldn't leave his work and the people there.

What followed was a book, “Murdered in Central America: The Stories of Eleven U.S. Missionaries,” written by Brett and his wife, Donna, in 1988.

“That book changed our lives,” said Brett, who has been at La Roche for 29 years.

The couple learned of the struggles of the poorest of people, and the part the Catholic church played in fighting for justice for them.

“This pope — Pope Francis — is a product of what the church did at that time,” Brett said.

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or ddreeland@tribweb.com.

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