From Savannah to Harlem: Mother Theodore Williams

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.

4/11/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • Pat McNamara
    About Pat McNamara
    Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.