of the Most Pure
Heart of Mary
“Lord, what would you have me do?” was the constant prayer of Elizabeth Barbara Williams, a devout black Catholic from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
For more than 30 years, Miss Williams had been a member of a small Franciscan Congregation, which disbanded. She then joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence, but left as a novice. While working at Trinity College in Washington, D.C., a Supplician priest arranged a meeting between Miss Williams and Fr. Ignatius Lissner, a French member of the Society of African Missions.
Fr. Lissner had established three schools for black children in Savannah, Georgia, which were staffed by white Franciscan Sisters. However, a 1915 bill before the Georgia state legislature threatened to outlaw the instruction of black children by white teachers. To save the schools, Fr. Lissner had petitioned Bishop Keiley of Savannah to grant permission to establish a new religious congregation of black sisters. The Bishop replied, “Yes, colored Sisters for colored people.”
Fr. Lissner needed to find the right person to be foundress, and divine providence brought Fr. Lissner and Miss Williams together. “Fr. Lissner had the plans and the permission for a new congregation,” wrote Cyprian Davis in Black Women in America. “Miss Williams had the charisma, the courage, and the inspiration to found the congregation and sustain it.”
In October 1916, she received the habit and took the name Mother Mary Theodore. Her prayer was answered. The new Congregation, The Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, was established. This title was chosen with the idea that members would “serve one another and those committed to their care with the same care, diligence, zeal, and love as Our Blessed Lady served her Divine Son."
Ironically, the proposed bill did not pass. The white nuns remained at two of the schools, and the Handmaids of Mary taught at the third, St. Anthony School in West Savannah.
Over the next seven years, the Handmaids faced extreme poverty, racial and religious discrimination, and scarcity of numbers. They taught by day and, to supplement their meagre earnings, they ran a laundry business at night and begged along the waterfront on weekends.
In spite of all their efforts, the survival of the Handmaids of Mary was questionable. Mother Theodore was plagued by many questions: "How will I feed my Sisters?" "Where will they go to school?" "Where will we be able to serve?" Again, she prayed, "Lord, what will you have me do?"
The Move to Harlem
The answer came through Fr. Lissner. While he was on a business trip to New York in 1922, he met Cardinal Hayes, the Archbishop of New York, who requested the services of the Handmaids to open a nursery for “Negro children in Harlem.” Mother Theodore accepted and sent a small group of sisters to New York.
St. Benedict’s Day Nursery was dedicated on October 3, 1923, to the delight of parents and the entire Harlem community; the first Catholic day nursery had opened and was being run by black sisters. The children were cared for, fed, protected, played with, nurtured and loved. Eventually what started out as a program designed as custodial care became an educational one.
Cardinal Hayes was so pleased with the work of the sisters and with the way in which they met the needs of the increasing black population in Harlem that he invited Mother Theodore to relocate the Handmaids of Mary to New York as a diocesan congregation. The Cardinal’s invitation was troubling to Mother Theodore. She prayed “Lord, what would you have me do?”--leave Savannah and the work for which we were founded, or stay and face probable extinction? She chose survival and with their greatest assets--zeal, joy, determination and love--the Handmaids of Mary moved to New York in 1924.
A New Era Begins
With the move to Harlem, the Handmaids experienced a rebirth. By 1925, there were sixteen members, eventually including women from the West Indies.
Teaching remained their priority. The Franciscan Handmaids of Mary were pioneers in the field of early childhood education, focusing on a holistic approach that developed the child spiritually, physically, intellectually, emotionally and socially. In 1926, they expanded their role as teachers by accepting the responsibility to staff St. Benedict the Moor School in midtown Manhattan. They remained there till 1936, when the school closed due to a shift in the black population from midtown to Harlem.
The Novitiate on Staten Island
The Handmaids of Mary opened a novitiate on Staten Island, New York, in 1929. They now had a house away from the busy part of the city where they could train young women interested in becoming members of the order. These young women came from all over the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa.
In 1930, Mother Theodore had the congregation enrolled in the Franciscan family as members of the Third Order Regular, thus becoming the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary. The Handmaids committed themselves to follow the rule, life and example of St. Francis of Assisi.
In the example of St. Francis, Mother Theodore exhorted her Sisters to serve the poor with love, humility and compassion. The sisters were committed to help the poor with food, clothing, and education, as well as their spiritual and emotional needs.
The Depression in Harlem
The Sisters' early years in New York were during the Depression. Mother Theodore and the Sisters went out every day begging for food. Whatever was obtained was served to the poor first and then the Sisters. While serving the poor from a soup kitchen the Handmaids established in Harlem, Mother Theodore became ill with pneumonia. Just fifteen years after founding the Franciscan Handmaids of Mary, Mother Theodore Williams died on July 14, 1931, at the age of 63.
Education Becomes Primary
Mother Mary Charles became the new Superior of the Handmaids. Recognizing that the congregation was founded to teach, and that education was one of the greatest needs of the Black community, Mother Charles concentrated her efforts on improving the educational status of the Sisters enabling them to become more effective educators.
In the 1930s, St. Mary’s Convent School opened in the Motherhouse to accommodate the graduates of St. Benedict’s Day Nursery. As enrollment grew, additional space was provided at St. Aloysius Rectory. On May 25, 1941, the new St. Aloysius grade school was dedicated through the generosity of Cardinal Spellman and the parishioners of St. Aloysius. It was the first Catholic parish school in Harlem staffed by Black sisters with a Black principal, Mother Miriam Cecilia FHM.
Over the years, the Franciscan Handmaids of Mary have been an educational force in teaching. They have held positions at
- St. Catherine of Genoa, Bronx
- St. Cecilia, Harlem
- Cathedral High School at both the Main Campus in Manhattan and at All Saints Division
- St. Joseph of the Holy Family in Central Harlem
- Holy Rosary Mount Carmel School in Harlem
- Our Lady of the Scapular
- Our Lady Help of Christians on Staten Island
- Misericordia School of Nursing in the Bronx
The Sisters were also involved in running many after-school enrichment programs.
Growth since the 1940s
The Congregation grew steadily during the 1940’s. Under the guidance of Mother Mary Dorothy, a new Motherhouse was built as well as a new Novitiate.
In the 50s, under the leadership of Mother Mary Agnes Eugenia, the Sisters were called upon once again to provide teachers for schools in the South. The Franciscan Handmaids of Mary joined with the Graymoor Franciscans and the Josephite Fathers in their missionary work in North Carolina, teaching at Christ the King School in High Point, and St. Thomas School in Wilmington.
They joined with the Society of African Mission Fathers in opening St. Cyprian, an elementary school, in Georgetown, South Carolina. In these missions, as in Harlem, the Sisters in addition to teaching were involved in the total life of the parish community. They also conducted Sodalities, the Sacred Heart Society; a teen-age club called The Cyprianites; and a sewing circle for the adult members of the community.
The Sisters in the 1970s. Top row: Sister Marie Bernard, Sister Agnes Eugenia, Sister Marie Bernadette, Sister Mary Catherine, Sister Marie Annunciata
The Handmaids have always ministered to the sick and the elderly, and in 1955 they began a senior program at the Kennedy Center to meet the physical and psycho-social needs of the elderly. In the 70s, the Sisters established St. Elizabeth Elementary School in Kingston, Jamaica.
Staten Island Camp and Novitiate
Camp St. Edward on Staten Island
On Staten Island, the Handmaids opened Camp St. Edward in 1952. The camp was located across the street from the Novitiate. Until it closed in 2003, the camp provided summer getaways for thousands of youth from New York City and North and South Carolina. The Novitiate was also closed in 2003.
A residence for girls whose mothers had sleeping-in jobs or who for some reason could not care for them was housed in the Mother Theodore Memorial building. The residence, now closed, was adjacent to the Motherhouse.
The Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary continue operating St. Benedict’s Day Nursery, which celebrated its 85th anniversary in 2008.
St. Benedict's Day School, members of Ms. McGraw's class
They operate the St. Edward Food Pantry, providing outreach and food distribution for the needy of Staten Island.
St. Edwards Food Pantry volunteers Charlie Miller and Joseph DiFranco
Sisters continue to minister in schools and hospitals and in catechetical programs. Another ministry of the Handmaids is the distribution of altar bread throughout the Metropolitan area.
Through the Franciscan Handmaids International Volunteer Outreach Program (FHIVOP), the Sisters provide outreach and clinic services for people in an impoverished rural area in the Archdiocese of Owerri, Nigeria. Members of the Congregation serve as commissioners and committee members of the Office of Black Ministries of the Archdiocese of New York and the National Black Conference.
Wheelchair tryouts in Owerri, Nigeria
The Motherhouse is a meeting place for such groups as the FHM Associates, Thea Bowman Secular Franciscans, Central Harlem Women in Prayer, and the Black and Catholic Spirituality Group. Most of all, it is a place of prayer. The small but dedicated order is a vital part of the Harlem and the African-American community, performing work in the spirit of their founders into the twenty-first century. One can never know how many young African Americans became educated or whose lives were enriched because of the work of the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary.