Reported by Liku Zelleke
The Motherhouse of the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary is one of only three orders of Black nuns in the United States and it will celebrate its centennial on Tuesday.
Often called “Whoopi Goldberg,” – after the actress’ Oscar-winning performance in the “Sister Act” franchise – the nuns of the order located in Central Harlem keep such a low profile that many people don’t even know that they exist.
“A lot of people we talk to today, they didn’t know there are Black nuns here in Harlem. They say, ‘Black nuns? We never knew they existed.’” says congregation minister Sister Gertrude Ihenacho.
The order was first established in 1916, in Savannah, Ga., because of the legislation at the time that prohibited white clergy from educating and guiding African-Americans.
In 1923, the order moved to Harlem where, even today, it continues to serve the poor and the down-on-lucks in the community. The nuns run the St. Benedict’s Day Nursery that caters to children between the ages of 2 and 4 and stays open longer to accommodate parents that hold down more than one job.
The order’s preschool education program is also another notable service for the community. Among its well-renowned graduates is Harlem’s own Congressman Charles Rangel.
The past 100 years, haven’t always been easy for the nuns. As a matter of fact, they nearly shut down in 2014, and only renewed their fight to continue – and succeeded – after Pope Francis made a rousing call to duty.
Sister Ihenacho says, “When we heard the Pope say, ‘Get out of your comfort zone, go out to the communities and serve,’ we decided to make things new.
With renewed faith, the sisters created a social justice website and started recruiting younger women to serve the poor. The recruitment drive cast a net as far away as Nigeria, Sister Ihenacho’s native land.
She said, “We seek out those whose rights are being denied. Everyone has rights to the basic needs of life, rights to food, rights to housing, water, many things. There are some in the land of plenty who are hungry. They shouldn’t be.”
After that particular drive, the number of sisters rose to the 15 it is today in New York with three more in training in Nigeria.
The order will be celebrating its centennial on Tuesday and those expected to be in attendance include the Archibishop of New York, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Susan L. Taylor, Melba Moore, Marc Morial, Rev. Al Sharpton, Charles Rangel and Dionne Warwick.
Sister Ihenacho said, “The gala represents the closing of the last 100 years and the beginning of a new 100 years. We are thinking differently, recruiting new members to move forward into the future.”