Firsts in Philadelphia
Sister Cora Marie Billings is originally from Philadelphia and maintains deep ties to the area. A West Philadelphia Catholic Girls’ High School alumna, Sister Cora Marie earned a BA in 1967—and an honorary doctorate in 2019—from Villanova.
She was the first Black woman to enter the Sisters of Mercy’s Mid-Atlantic community, joining the religious order in 1956. She went on to hold positions at archdiocesan elementary and high schools, becoming one of the first African American sisters to teach in a Catholic secondary school in Philadelphia.
She also helped to found (as did Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA), the National Black Sisters’ Conference in 1968.
Firsts in Richmond
After moving to Richmond in 1981, Sister Cora Marie was the first African American sister to work as a campus minister at Virginia State University. She also was the director of the diocese’s Office for Black Catholics for 25 years.
Beginning in 1990, she served as the pastoral coordinator of St. Elizabeth Catholic Church for 14 years—the first Black woman in the country to lead a Catholic parish. For a time, she also supervised the lay leaders of parishes in the Diocese of Richmond. (Because of her work at St. Elizabeth, she was once a correct answer on Jeopardy!.) She served as the deputy director for Virginia’s Human Rights Council from 2007 to 2010.
Sister Cora Marie’s mother, Mrs. Ethel Lee Billings, was active in the Philadelphia chapter of the Federated Colored Catholics in the 1930s. Through that work, Mrs. Billings (then, Miss Lee) advocated for a young West Catholic graduate, James Richardson, who had been denied admission to La Salle University because of his race. Mr. Richardson eventually enrolled at Villanova and graduated in 1941.
Sister Cora Marie’s grandfather, John A. Lee Sr., was a graduate of Roman Catholic High School, where he played basketball. When other high schools in the Catholic League refused to play against Roman if John Lee remained on the team, his teammates agreed that if John Lee couldn’t play, they wouldn’t play—even if it meant forfeiting every game. The Catholic League relented and compelled the schools to play against Roman.
Sister Cora Marie had two aunts who joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore.