This past weekend, the nuns of the Motherhouse of the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, in New York’s Central Harlem neighborhood, celebrated their 100th anniversary.
The milestone stands as a marker of the nuns’ perseverance. The order, which has been based in Harlem since 1923, was originally started in 1916 in Savannah, Georgia as reaction to segregation-era policies that limited the duties that white religious leaders could perform in black communities. Over the years, the small group faced struggles attracting new members, and even considering closing their doors for good in 2014.
“We didn’t have new people joining us. Age was against us. We were at the threshold of deciding what to do,” said Sister Gertrude Ihenacho.
Ihenacho, who joined the Roman Catholic Church as a 19-year-old in Nigeria, has served as the order’s congregation minister for the past 10 years. She also jokes that she occasionally gets mistake for Whoopi Goldberg.
“Somebody saw me with a few of the other sisters,” said Ihenacho. “They turned around and said, ‘Hey! This is Whoopi!'”
Ihenacho also acknowledges that many are simply shocked to find out that black nuns exist.
The group decided to ramp up their outreach, a move that was largely inspired by Pop Francis.
“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,” she said.
The Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary started a website dedicated to social justice, they also hand out brochures and take mission trips.
Today the group is 15 members strong and growing with two sisters in other states and more sisters in training in Nigeria.
The nuns of the Motherhouse of the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary also continue to focus on outreach work in the Bronx and Staten Island, in addition to running a low cost daycare center.