A Woman, A Mother and a Catholic: Meet Natalia Imperatori-Lee

by Lauren Schuster

Staff Writer

Natalia Imperatori-Lee, Ph.D., an associate professor in the religious studies department at Manhattan College, is a person who embraces her many identities.

As a Latina woman, a mother and a Catholic, she is able to offer a unique and refreshing perspective to the study of religion through the courses that she teaches. Some of these courses include “The Nature and Experience of Religion,” “U.S. Latino/a Catholicism,” “Vatican II,” “Contemporary Catholicism” and “Sexuality and the Sacred.”

After her husband got a job in New York City and they had been living there for about two years, Imperatori-Lee said that she was “lucky enough” to be hired by Manhattan College in the religious studies department.

“The best part about [the job] is that I really like Manhattan College. I really like the students, I really like the ethos and I really like the Lasallian ideas and the Lasallian vision,” Imperatori-Lee said.

Imperatori-Lee focused on ecclesiology and feminist theology while getting her doctorate degree at the University of Notre Dame, so teaching about the Catholic Church and feminist issues within it is both her main area of interest and main area of expertise. While Imperatori-Lee enjoys focusing her classes on Catholicism specifically, lately she has been expanding the list of classes that she teaches to include those which look at religion in general.

“More recently, I’ve branched into teaching the Sexuality and the Sacred course, and I do that every spring now. It’s not a Catholicism course, it’s just a course that sort of looks at how religion deals with sexuality, and I actually really deeply love teaching that class now, because it allows us to talk about really important things that affect the students every day and people get really into it and are very invested in it. So, it’s a really fun class to teach,” Imperatori-Lee said. “I also do a lot of Hispanic stuff, [like classes about] the Hispanic church.”

Although Latino and Hispanic religious studies were not originally an area of focus for Imperatori-Lee, over time she began to feel more connected with her own identity as a Latina and began to notice the way in which people with certain identities have to work harder to have their voices heard. This caused Latino and Hispanic topics to become a bigger focus of her career as an educator.

“I was convinced, in part by having so many students who are Hispanic here at Manhattan, that it’s really important for students to see themselves reflected in the person in the front of the room, and that it’s really important for people to read things that are not from sort of a dominant or mainstream perspective, or at least the perspective that you always hear on Catholicism,” she said.

Imperatori-Lee went on to explain that it is important to her to bring the unique perspectives of her multiple identities into the classroom in order to complicate students’ thinking about the topics they cover in class, especially in classes that are Catholicism-focused.

“Part of that [unique perspective] is the Latina perspective, which I think is really important. Part of that is the feminist perspective, which doesn’t get heard too much in Catholicism. Part of that is just the perspective of a lay woman. I used to be super ashamed of talking about my kids. I thought it was a little bit unprofessional, you know, you should keep your kids to yourself, nobody talks about that, but in reality that’s not true. If it’s part of your life, people want to hear about it,” Imperatori-Lee said.

One of her main goals is to make sure that underrepresented identities have their voices heard.

“It’s in part a response to injustice, I guess, and to silencing, especially. Ever since I was very little I’ve hated the idea of being left out. I would color with all of the crayons, even the ones that I hated, so that none of them would feel bad. So, I don’t like the idea of people being silenced, or their memories erased or their histories erased, so I hope that some of the work that I do works towards that,” Imperatori-Lee said.

In addition to teaching classes at Manhattan College, Imperatori-Lee has been researching for and working on writing both books and articles in her field. The book she has recently been working on is set to be released in the early months of 2018 and is about Hispanic ecclesiology.

“[The book is] using storytelling as a way of getting at how people feel about the Church and how people really think about God using narratives like stories, fiction, demographics and histories as resources for how we think about the Church, and there are voices [in the book], again, that don’t normally get included in the conversation,” Imperatori-Lee said.

“I’m also working with a smaller group of theologians on Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which is about marriage and the family, so I have an article coming out on that that I’m actually just finishing this week. That came from a conference that some theologians and bishops were at together, which is very rare.”

Looking beyond these publications that are to be released soon, Imperatori-Lee is also looking forward to beginning research for her own college textbook, which will focus on women and the Church. Research for the textbook will be in full force during the upcoming spring semester.