The Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, Inc. (FHM), one of only three orders of Black nuns in the United States, was preparing to phase out in 2014. Economic hardships, a decline in interest in religious life by young Americans and an aging and infirm membership had dealt a near death blow to the Harlem-based order, best known for its work in educating children and feeding the poor. A message from Pope Francis helped save from the brink the order, which celebrated its 100th anniversary at a gala and benefit at the New York Academy of Medicine in Manhattan on Tuesday, during Women’s History Month. The event featured His Eminence Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York. The sisters will celebrate their anniversary all year.
In 2014, as the order met to determine how to close down, the sisters were encouraged by Pope Francis, who said in an interview, “Let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself.” This reminded the sisters of Scripture of the Disciples who were fishing without luck when Jesus told them to “cast the net on the right side of the boat,” resulting in great success. The order was inspired to embark on a course of revitalization, thinking outside the box and endeavoring to take on new activities. They have since reached out to other parts of the United States to encourage others to join them in religious life but also to parts of Africa and the Caribbean, where several current sisters have ties. The FHM now has six new sisters in formation (in training) and has expanded its day nursery and food pantry. They also opened a convent in the Archdiocese of Owerri in Nigeria; the sisters there do home visitation to the sick elderly, teach Catholic catechism to children and prepare Catholic couples for marriage in rural areas.
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Honorees at the gala included Marc H. Morial, National Urban League President & CEO, Wendy Oxenhorn, vice chairman/executive director of the Jazz Foundation (and Street News founder), the Honorable Charles B. Rangel, U.S. congressman, the Rev. Al Sharpton, National Action Network president and founder, and the African-American Catholic bishops, accepted by Bishop Guy Sansaricq, Diocese of Brooklyn. Susan L. Taylor, Essence Magazine editor in chief emerita and founder/CEO of the National CARES Mentoring Movement, will present the Centennial Award to the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary at the event, which will include performances by Melba Moore, Tony and multiple Grammy Award-nominated artist,Carmen Ruby Floyd, Broadway actress and singer, and Interpretive Works; 3D Ministries. Additional presenters include Dionne Warwick, Grammy Award-winning vocalist, Alysia Joy Powell, star of NBC’s Mysteries of Laura, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, award-winning actress and comedian, Charles D. Smith, CEO of LifeStyle Service Group and former NBA player, and Brother Tyrone Davis, of the Office of Black Ministry, Archdiocese of New York.Contessa Brewer, CBS News anchor, and David Ushery, WNBC-TV anchor, will host and G. Keith Alexander, radio and television personality, will serve as announcer. A dessert reception caps the night with performances by Viction and The Collaboration featuring Topaza.
“We are looking forward to celebrating these wonderful honorees who have provided important services to the community throughout the years,” said Sister Gertrude Lilly Ihenacho, who as congregation minister heads up the mostly Black order. “We are happy for their participation and stand revitalized in purpose, renewed in the Spirit and ready for the next century of service.”
FHM was founded in 1916 in Savannah, Georgia, in response to proposed segregationist legislation that would prohibit White religious leaders from educating and providing pastoral care to Blacks in the state. The Rev. Ignatius Lissner joined forces with Miss Barbara Williams (later to become Mother Theodore Williams), a Black woman from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to found an order of Black women that could continue to address the needs of the Black community.
In 1923, the group moved to Harlem at the request of Cardinal Patrick Hayes and launched one of the first preschool educational programs in New York, which went on to educate such notables as Rangel and the late Kevin Lofton, president of the Catholic Health Association of America. The St. Benedict Day Nursery remains to carry on the legacy of excellence. The FHM feeds more than 20,000 families annually at the St. Edward Food Pantry in Staten Island at Mt. Loretto, a center for Catholic Charities; the order was awarded the Kathy Goldman Beyond Food Award at the 15th Annual Food Bank of New York Conference in 2006 for their efforts to address the hunger crisis. The sisters also have led several preventative care medical missions to Nigeria servicing approximately 2,000 people per mission since 2000, provide clothing and Christmas gifts and toys to the needy and provide altar bread to many parishes in the Archdiocese of New York.
On January 6—to coincide with the arrival of the Magi, who brought gifts to celebrate Jesus’ birth—they launched the “100 Days of Kindness,” asking everyday New Yorkers to perform a daily good deed, big or small, to enrich another’s life in honor of their 100 years of service. The campaign is part of the Jubilee Year of Mercy 2016 as declared by Pope
Francis (which runs through November 20, 2016). A Jubilee Year, or Holy Year, is a special time announced by the Catholic Church of blessings and pardon from God for Catholics internationally and Pope Francis encourages Catholics to focus on forgiveness and not judgment this year.
Proceeds of the benefit will help the order provide scholarships to needy children to attend and revitalize the St. Benedict Day Nursery, which services children ages two to four, and will help train the next generation of sisters.
For more information, visit the FHM website www.passionforsocialjustice.com
Photo credit by Regina Fleming.