In Ages Past
From Savannah to Harlem: Mother Theodore Williams
The feared bill never passed, but Lissner went ahead with his plans. In September 1916, after he purchased a house for the new community, Elizabeth arrived (with habit) and soon took vows as Mother Mary Theodore. She would be the superior. In a short time, a handful of young women gathered around her. They called themselves the Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary.
The response from the local community, Black and white, was largely positive. But one exception came from white nuns. Lissner recalled:
As real Southerners, they could not believe that a Colored woman could make a real Religious Sister . . . "It is a shame," they said. "Fr. Lissner will soon find out his mistake. He may give them the veil, but will that prevent them from stealing chickens and telling lies?"
Lissner, whose father was Jewish, was also subject to prejudice. The local bishop, a Civil War veteran later buried with a Confederate flag, wrote privately that the priest had "all the objectionable traits of the race."
The Handmaids took over one school, and operated a laundry to support themselves. They begged in markets along Savannah's waterfront. But Mother Theodore, described as "a woman of courage, strong faith, and an ability to bear many trials without discouragement," held them together. Clearly there was little future in Savannah, but Lissner observed, "God knows how many souls they reached."
In 1923, invited by New York's Archbishop Patrick Hayes, they came to Harlem to start St. Benedict's Day Nursery for working parents. As Harlem became a center for African-American life, Hayes made outreach a priority. The Sisters moved to East 131st Street. They began a school, one history notes, "out of the mutual regret of parents and Sisters to part with the children they have trained and loved in the Day Nursery."
As time went on, Lissner's influence declined, and Mother Theodore made the big decisions, like the move to New York. In 1929, she affiliated with the Franciscans, so the Sisters became known as the Franciscan Handmaids of Mary. In Harlem, some they encountered were old friends. One woman commented that Harlem seemed to be "full of nothin' but Savannah people."
During the Great Depression, with few resources, Mother Theodore began a soup kitchen that ran most of the day, with people lined up three abreast for three blocks. Sisters begged for leftover food in downtown markets. Scraping off the rot, they boiled huge cauldrons of water with bones they gathered. They threw in the cleaned vegetables, and "soon a delicious soup was simmering."
By 1931, overworked and in poor health, Mother Theodore was dying of pneumonia. On the day of her death, July 14th, a contemporary recalled: "It was a measure of the respect in which she was held that the entire block was quiet so that she would not be startled by any noise." Before she died, she told the gathered Sisters it was time for them to carry on the work.
In the face of obstacles largely unimaginable today, Mother Theodore never gave up on her vocation, even when all seemed lost. Since her death the Handmaids, although never a large group, have expanded their ministry back to the South, and across to Africa. As they approach their centennial, they continue to bring God's love to the people of Harlem and beyond.
Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.