Mother Mathilda Beasley, a pioneering African American nun from Savannah, Georgia, is getting some extra recognition in her adopted home state. The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) will be adding her portrait to the wall of Arnold Hall, along with nine other prominent women who made a difference in the state.
Born into slavery in New Orleans in 1832, there is no record of how she gained her freedom. But the website GeorgiaWomen.org offers important biographical information:
You can read more about Mother Beasley here.
In the 1880s, Mathilda became a pioneer within the Catholic Church when she went to England to train as a Catholic nun. Upon her return to Savannah she became known as Mother Mathilda, and later Mother Beasley, and Georgia’s first African-American nun. Mother Mathilda donated her husband’s estate to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of Savannah in order to establish an orphanage, the St. Francis Home for Colored Orphans, the first facility of its kind for African-American girls. Originally located near the Sacred Heart church, the orphanage started taking girls in 1887 and was moved in the late 1890s to East Broad Street, the site of the newly erected St. Benedict’s Parish. Though it has been speculated that Mother Mathilda donated her estate to atone for her late husband’s financial gain from slavery, the very institution that she was born into and later escaped from, it has not been proven that was her motivation. However, with her pure heart and willingness to sacrifice for others, it would not be surprising if this was true.
Mother Mathilda founded the Third Order of St. Francis in 1889, Georgia’s first group of black nuns. During this time, the orphanage faced financial troubles and arson attacks and Mother Mathilda did not hesitate to do whatever she could to keep the orphanage going, including fundraising and taking in sewing to support her cause. She operated the orphanage until her death at age 71 on Dec. 20, 1903, when she was found in her private chapel with hands clasped and stretched towards a statue of the Blessed Virgin and her shroud and burial garments folded neatly with her last will and testament placed on top.
Mother Beasley devoted herself to bettering the lives of others in spite of great difficulties and her sacrifices improved conditions for the African-American population in Savannah. Her work continues through the Mother Mathilda Beasley Society, which was established to promote programs and awareness of African-American contributions within the church, and Savannah has commemorated her life with a park bearing her name and a roadside marker listing her accomplishments.
The SCAD honor was spearheaded by the college’s president and founder Paula Wallace. A press release explains:
The genesis of Wallace’s Savannah Women of Vision initiative, which elevates a traditionally underrepresented – and yet tremendously influential – demographic, can be traced to the 1930s’ Works Progress Administration mural featured in the historic Arnold Hall theater. The mural, a visual ode to the titans of Savannah’s history, is notable in its omission of women. This imbalance is especially disconcerting given studies that prove strong female leadership has a salutary influence on society as a whole.
By symbolically righting the historical record, Wallace adds ten paragons of civic virtue to whom students – men and women alike – can look for inspiration. The university will offer tours of the Women of Vision portrait installation in Arnold Hall to K-12 students and educators. A free curriculum guide provides historic context to the portrait installation.
As Wallace explains, “Savannah as we know it rests on the triumphs of its women — mothers, entrepreneurs, authors, patriots, philanthropists. I created the Savannah Women of Vision to illuminate trailblazers and their transcendent work, keeping their names and deeds not only in our hearts, but publicly acclaimed. These are our heroines.”
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