The Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary begin their second century of service with a renewed sense of hope and revitalization.
“Now that we have reached 100 years, we have a new vision statement. We are going to unite in unity and take risks and answer the call to do whatever is needed for the poor and whatever is needed in the Church, the archdiocese and whatever mission God puts in our hearts,” said Sister Gertrude Lilly Ihenacho, F.H.M., congregation minister since 2010.
Reaching the centennial milestone was no easy task for the Harlem-based community. At their general assembly meeting in 2014, closure was a real possibility due to an aging and infirm membership, economic hardships and a decline in religious vocations.
However, Pope Francis’ instruction to “go into the periphery,” along with Cardinal Dolan’s pastoral planning initiative “Making All Things New,” prompted the Franciscan Handmaids to do all they could to increase their numbers in new and unique ways.
Under the guidance of Sister Gertrude, the order reached out to other parts of the United States, Africa and the Caribbean. They also opened a convent in the Archdiocese of Owerri in Nigeria.
The efforts are working. The Franciscan Handmaids, which is one of three orders of black nuns in the United States, now has nine women in formation. The twenty-five sisters live in the Harlem motherhouse, and live and serve in Yonkers, Staten Island, the Bronx and Africa.
Hard work and dedication were necessary elements for the order’s recent renewal, but Sister Gertrude said she thanks God, first and foremost, and in a very special way, Our Lady Untier of Knots.
The Franciscan Handmaids begin each day with Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament followed by morning Mass and praying the Rosary. “Franciscans are men and women of the Gospel, and we, in our spirituality, and in our experience know that we gain strength by starting with adoration of Almighty God who has given us strength and who has called us to ministry,” Sister Gertrude said.
“We always pray that Jesus remains in our hearts to influence our actions in our life and in our ministry and strengthen us until we are back,” she said. “As women disciples, and also as minorities, we have great challenges. To be a woman disciple, even in our Church, is not an easy thing. We can’t do anything without God.”
The order has a special devotion to Our Lady Untier of Knots. “We have her picture in all our chapels, and in some of our offices,” she said. “Some of us have it on our key chains.
“We have great challenges, and she keeps untying obstacles on our way,” she said. “We also have the Blessed Madonna and Child, from our founder, we still have that devotion.”
The sisters hope to increase their numbers further to assist more people, always with the aim of uplifting the dignity of the human person. “We are working towards a vibrant community, present and visible in the Church and the archdiocese,” Sister Gertrude said.
The congregation’s founder was Father Ignatius Lissner, who partnered with Barbara Williams of Baton Rouge, La., later known as Mother Theodore Williams, F.M.H. The two began the order in Savannah, Ga., in 1916 to combat proposed legislation that threatened to segregate white religious leaders from educating and providing pastoral care to blacks in the state.
In 1923, Cardinal Patrick Hayes invited the sisters to come to Harlem. When they arrived, they launched one of the first preschool programs in the United States. That mission lives on in St. Benedict’s Day Nursery. Today, 42 children between the ages of 2 and 5 are enrolled. Sister Mary Ann Baichan, F.M.H., is director of the day nursery.
Sister Mary Ann, who entered in 2013, professed first vows during the Centennial Closing Mass celebrated by Cardinal Dolan at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Harlem on Oct. 8.
“It was beyond my hopes and dreams,” she said of her profession on such a momentous occasion. “I live one day at a time because I want to give our Lord today, so I don’t look around at tomorrow, or yesterday that went by. I live minute by minute. But when it happened, I said, ‘Thank God—You have been very good to me, I am blessed beyond my dreams.’”
As for the centennial, she said, “The anniversary, this closing of 100 years is just a new beginning for us, where we can see where we can do better and be more of everything for everyone else. We can address issues and not be afraid. We saw what our forbearers were able to do. We have to take the torch and keep on going and even try to do better.”
The order is involved in parish ministry, parish visitation and catechesis, and teaching. Some of the parishes where the sisters serve include St. Mark the Evangelist and St. Joseph of the Holy Family, both in Harlem, and Our Lady Star of the Sea on Staten Island.
The sisters also run St. Edward Food Pantry on Staten Island that serves more than 20,000 families each year.
Frank DeMartino, a parishioner at St. Clare’s on Staten Island, volunteers every Wednesday at the food pantry and assists with tasks that include sorting food, packing groceries for customers, unloading trucks and sweeping the floors.
“The work is wonderful. It’s very rewarding,” said DeMartino, a five-year volunteer. “The sisters are very loving and caring people. They inspire me. To see these women who have dedicated their life to the poor is a true inspiration. And to think they thank me for coming for a few hours every week. They are very special people.”