Award-winning professor, author, nurse, moral theologian, expert on bioethics, and one of the most respected voices in the black Catholic community has died. Dr. Shawnee Daniels-Sykes was 61.

Born and raised in Milwaukee, Daniels-Sykes, Ph.D., was a professor of theology and ethics at Mount Mary University. A registered nurse, she was the only black Catholic female health care ethicist in the United States. She also was a professed sister with the School Sisters of Notre Dame until she left after 22 years.

Daniels-Sykes received her doctorate from Marquette University in religious studies with a specialization in theological ethics and a sub-specialization in bioethics. She was a faculty member in the theology collaborative for Ascension Health Care USA, where she taught an online course on moral theology and Catholic social teaching for Ascension Health Care executive leaders. During the summers, she taught Moral Questions in the Black Community at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana, where she served as an adjunct associate professor.

Diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in 2019, coupled with a lifetime of dealing with Crohn’s Disease, Dr. Daniels-Sykes never complained about her pain, said her close friend, Fr. Bryan Massingale, S.T.D., professor of theology at Fordham University. Fr. Massingale grew up in Milwaukee and taught theology at Marquette University.

“She was teaching in the classroom at Mount Mary almost until she passed. She asked me one day why she was still here, and I told her that God had more work for her to do,” he said. “She and I met when we both expressed an interest in religious life, at around 21 or 22 years old. Shawnee and I would see each other often at the Brother Booker Ashe gatherings. Our paths have intersected and intertwined.”

A leader in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Daniels-Sykes worked alongside Fr. Massingale while he was an archdiocesan priest. Both pursued their doctorate degrees in Catholic bioethics and moral theology. Fr. Massingale was the first African American man to earn his doctorate and Daniels-Sykes was the first African American woman.

“I was happy to be on her Ph.D. committee,” Fr. Massingale said. “In addition to becoming the first black tenured professor at Mount Mary University, she traveled the world as an international lecturer. She traveled to Kenya and St. Lucia, and was a major keynote speaker in 2018 at an international moral theology conference in Sarajevo. But she was always rooted in Milwaukee and, most importantly, in Milwaukee’s inner city. She always had a passion for the lives of those who are often passed by and often go unnoticed in Milwaukee. A point of pride for her was that she lived in the 53206 ZIP Code. That is a ZIP Code with any number of social challenges, and Shawnee was deeply rooted in that neighborhood and always looking out for the interests of those who lived there. One of her academic projects was a death shrine after a homicide. People would erect the shrines to memorialize the victims of violence, and one of her research projects was a theological and ethical reflection on these deaths shrines that serve as a memorial for deceased persons and as a protest to violence that happens afterward.”

Fr. Massingale will preach the homily at Dr. Daniels-Sykes’ funeral Mass on Nov. 12 at All Saints Catholic Church.

“People should know she was a woman of deep faith who loved God’s people,” he said. “She was so deeply devoted to her students, not only for academic achievement but also concern for their personal lives and wellbeing.”

Fr. Javier Bustos, S.T.D., vicar general, vicar for Hispanic ministry and pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace, recalled meeting Daniels-Sykes many years ago when he was a seminarian and she worked for the archdiocese.

“Shawnee was a founding member of the Archdiocesan Healthcare and Bioethics Committee,” he said. “She was a brilliant woman, who was able to read the Gospel message incarnated in the lives of the people, especially those in need. Shawnee was a woman of faith and integrity.”

According to Fessahaye Mebrahtu, M.A., M.Div., Th.M., the director of Black Catholic and Ethnic Ministries for the archdiocese, Dr. Daniels-Sykes was the second director to run the Office of Black Catholic Ministry in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. During her tenure, she developed the Lincoln and Julia Valle Lay Ministry Program, training many lay ministers for the Central City Catholic Parishes in the 1990s.

“She and Celia Jackson wrote the ‘Historical Background of the Black Catholics in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’ as part of the 2019 Black Catholic Pastoral Plan. Dr. Shawnee Daniels-Sykes was one of a handful of moral theologians in the specific field of her expertise from Marquette University, especially among African American theologians,” he said. “After she earned her Ph.D., Shawnee was accessible to the community — leading workshops and presentations.”

Despite her illness, Mebrahtu said she was never deterred from her mission.  She planned to speak at the upcoming SHINE (Sharing Insights on Cancer Care) workshop, which she initiated, about creating awareness about healthcare in the African American community, which takes place Nov. 19 at St. Martin de Porres Parish.

The purpose of the event, which runs from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., is to raise awareness about the five most common cancers affecting Wisconsinites and how to screen and diagnose these cancers. Dr. Daniels-Sykes was to speak on pancreatic cancer and other observations.

As the Office for Urban Ministry Director, Shanedra Johnson, M.A., worked with Dr. Daniels-Sykes often and considered her to be a larger-than-life person.

“Shawnee truly embodied what it means to be a ‘Light of Christ.’ She continually ministered with an open heart, an open mind and open arms, without judgment,” Johnson said. “To know her is a gift and a blessing. She was always encouraging and patient, and while she will be deeply missed in this realm, heaven is rejoicing and dancing in receiving one of God’s precious gifts. She has been instrumental in so many lives in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the Catholic Church and the community.”

Her close friend, Antoinette Mensah, director of World Mission Ministries: Office for World Mission/Society for the Propagation of Faith, said she and Dr. Daniels-Sykes journeyed together as she was committed to the good of all people.

“She was the alumni of the year for DSHA, (and) connected to faith, family, education and community. She appreciated where she came from and was proud of her accomplishments but never boastful,” Mensah said. “She impacted the lives of many, was my son’s godmother and was very committed to education. She worked with students at Mount Mary and was not willing to let common expectations define any students. She made sure resources were available for students and helped to find them if they weren’t.  She kept empowering people, and she always got the best.”

Mensah credits Dr. Daniels-Sykes for helping prepare her for her dissertation, pushing her, and telling her that her work was important to the Church.

“We would talk about encyclicals and Church doctrine for hours,” said Mensah. “She fought many obstacles and still kept her faith and belief in the good of people. She was a dear friend, my sister from another mother. She will be missed. She impacted so many people and was never one who said she could only be with certain kinds of people. As long as you were open, she could be your friend and help you.”

Mensah said that her doctors and the surgical team became friends with her, and some were her classmates at DSHA. Originally, doctors gave her six months to live when she was diagnosed at the end of November 2019. She lasted nearly three years.

“Shawnee died at 1 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 31, in hospice care. She was in for seven days and leaves behind her mother Louise, one sister, and four brothers. She previously lost a sister and two brothers,” said Mensah. “She never presented as sick and would often hike or ride her bike after chemo. I believe she will be a saint one day.”

Shawnee Daniels-Sykes Funeral Services

Visitation: Friday, Nov. 11 – 3 to 7 p.m.

St. Martin de Porres, 128 W. Burleigh St., Milwaukee

Funeral: Saturday, Nov. 12

Final Viewing: 8 to 9:45 a.m.

Mass: 10 a.m.

All Saints Catholic Church, 4051 N. 25th St., Milwaukee

Interment: Holy Cross Cemetery, 7301 W. Nash St., Milwaukee

Repast: Mount Mary University, 2900 Menomonee River Parkway, Milwaukee

Event Canceled

The Black Catholic History Month Event, “Living our Faith through Black Catholic Spirituality,” scheduled for Nov. 12 has been rescheduled for February in honor of the passing of Shawnee Daniels-Sykes, Ph.D.

The Black Catholic Ministry Commission of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee postponed the presentation by Vevette Hill- Nwagbaraocha and Simon Biagui so participants and attendees can attend Dr. Daniels-Sykes’ funeral.

The Black Catholic Pastoral Plan Steering Committee and report for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee was led by Dr. Daniels-Sykes, who was a leader in Catholic theological ethics and an active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, Upsilon Mu Omega Chapter.

For further information, contact Fessahaye Mebrahtu at 414-526-0385 or Shanedra Johnson at 414-758-2215.

Dr. Shawnee Daniels-Sykes