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Buffalo native, now renowned theologian, will give first Women Wisdom lecture

Diana L. Hayes, who grew up on Buffalo’s East Side, has been a trailblazer all her life.

After starting life a devout Methodist, she converted to Catholicism and went on to become the first African-American woman to earn a Pontifical Doctorate in Sacred Theology.

Now an emerita professor of systematic theology at Georgetown University and author or co-author of many books, Hayes will give the inaugural talk in a new Women Wisdom lecture series starting at 7 p.m. Monday in the Newman Center on UB’s North Campus.

In a phone interview from her home in Stone Mountain, Ga., Hayes said her talk, “Standing in the Shoes My Mother Made: The Making of a Womanist Theologian,” will appeal to anyone, no matter what their level of education.

“I have a pontificate degree, but I don’t pontificate,” she said, laughing. “I bring in my scholarship, but I try to write and speak in such a way that people with no Ds after their name will understand.”

Sponsored by the Newman Centers at UB, the series has been on the mind of the Newman Center’s director, Monsignor J. Patrick Keleher, for a while. “I have been wanting to bring a famous theologian here for years,” Keleher said. “It’s important for us to be thinking at a deeper level. And when the pope called upon the church to develop a new theology of women, I got this idea. I said what we need is a theology from women, we don’t need men doing a theology of women.

“This lecture and the series it inaugurates are the beginning of our response to that call; to hear the stories of women and let them shape this new theology,” Keleher said. Organizers hope that the lectures will happen twice annually.

Hayes has led what she calls “an eclectic life.” After graduating from East High School, she studied chemistry for a year at the University of Rochester, then shifted to the University at Buffalo and studied language, with an eye to working in the State Department’s Foreign Service. In the summer of 1968, inspired by Robert F. Kennedy, she changed to pre-law, and attended New York University and George Washington National Law Center in Washington, D.C., where she earned her law degree. While working as an attorney in consumer protection in Albany, she said, “I just sort of slowly came to the realization that I needed to check out the Catholic church.”

Because she “didn’t even know any Catholics,” she called the diocesan offices in Albany. “Apparently nobody in history had ever called the chancellery and asked how does one become a Catholic, so I was transferred to almost every division except I think budget, and I ended up in vocations. I said, ‘No, I don’t want to be a nun.’ But we had a nice chat and they said one usually speaks to a priest, and I said, ‘OK, where do I find one?’  ”

Eventually Hayes was connected with the Rev. Nellis Tremblay, the priest who would become her mentor and spiritual adviser. During their months of meetings before her confirmation as a Catholic, she said, “I was praying to become a good Catholic lawyer and he was praying that I would become a theologian, and his prayers were canceling mine out!”

She applied and was accepted to work in the Foreign Service of the Department of State, but an ailment that affected the cartilage in her knees led to her delaying that step. “In the meantime, God continued to work on me so that I never did enter the State Department, and next thing I found myself going to Catholic University and studying theology,” she said. “Just bizarre, I always say.”

After eight years of study, Hayes had a bachelor’s degree and a licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Catholic University of America, as well as a doctorate in Religious Studies and pontifical degree from the Catholic University of Louvain. After graduation in 1988, Hayes was hired by Georgetown University, where she taught theology before retiring in May 2011. She was made an emerita professor in August 2011.

Hayes is the author or co-author of eight books and more than 75 articles. Her book “Standing in the Shoes My Mother Made: A Womanist Theology” will be available for sale and to be signed after her UB lecture.

“The talk is basically about my journey in becoming a Catholic womanist theologian and what womanist theology is,” Hayes said. “It will combine autobiography, theology, and some history, because I am African-American I always have to bring in some African-American history, just to show my context and ground it in that, and my hopes for the future.”

“Womanist” is a term coined by author Alice Walker to describe a feminist of color. Walker’s four-part definition of the term says, “A womanist is to a feminist as purple is to lavender.”

Hayes said that for her, “reading this definition was like an ‘aha’ moment. She was looking for a word to describe women of African descent who were interested in writing about, talking about, studying about, teaching about race, class and gender as they all impacted on black women. She wanted to find a term where you didn’t have to put a color in front of a term that is broadly defined.”

Keleher said he is pleased to have Hayes inaugurate the lecture series. “She is an original Buffalonian, and it’s exciting to have her back.”

Hayes said she was “deeply honored” to be asked to deliver the first lecture in the Women Wisdom series, and is looking forward to touring the North Campus. During her undergraduate years, she said, the Main Street campus “was to me such a beautiful campus, especially with Hayes Hall there, I used to always say I must have a relative there somewhere.”