In Ages Past
From Savannah to Harlem: Mother Theodore Williams
In his highly recommended The History of Black Catholics in the United States, Father Cyprian Davis notes that African-American women were among the country's first Sisters. In 1829, several Haitian women in Baltimore women founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence. At New Orleans in 1842, two New Orleans ladies, "free women of color," founded the Sisters of the Holy Family. In 1916, in the Jim Crow South, a French priest named Ignatius Lissner and an ex-nun named Elizabeth Williams founded the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary.
During her lifetime, Elizabeth Barbara Williams was associated with all three groups. Born in Baton Rouge, she was the oldest of nine in a devout Catholic family. (Her cousin John Plantevigne was one of America's first Black priests.) Around age 19, she joined a contemplative community in Convent, Louisiana, an offshoot of the Holy Family Sisters. Taking the name Sister Seraphim, she stayed there until New Orleans' Archbishop James Blenk dissolved the community in 1913.
The official reason given for the dissolution was the Mother Superior's death, but a more potent factor may have been Southern racism. Many—Catholics included—found Black women in habits to be a threat, and Blenk wasn't one to challenge such objections. (He banned Elizabeth's priest cousin from working in New Orleans, alleging "a negative reaction from whites." It was said Plantevigne died of a broken heart.)
She transferred to the Oblates as Sister Mary Theodore, but left in 1915. Although the reasons are unclear, her forceful personality may have played a role. From there, she became a receptionist in a Washington, D.C. convent, but the Sisters didn't know her background. Still, she never abandoned hope of returning to religious life and she (literally) held on to her habit.
Elizabeth found a spiritual director in Father John Fenlon, a priest associated with the faculty of The Catholic University of America. Fenlon liked her and encouraged her not to give up on her vocation. Soon he had a visitor from Georgia, Father Lissner. In 1915, Georgia saw Leo Frank's lynching, the Klan's resurgence, and anti-Catholicism at a fever pitch. Lissner was particularly worried about a bill banning white teachers in Black schools.
A French-born missionary serving Georgia's Black Catholics, Lissner had founded several schools, all staffed by white Sisters. He now decided to pursue a longtime dream of starting a community for Black women. Fenlon suggested he contact Elizabeth Williams, whom he phoned. Lissner recalled that she nearly bowled him over with enthusiasm. Although he thought her "a little headstrong," he "was satisfied that she had a vocation and could render a valuable service."
Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.