Order of Black Nuns celebrates 100th anniversary with mass

Continuing the sisterhood: Nuns of the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary at the Church of St. Charles Borromeo. The Archbishop of the Catholic Church Timothy Dolan presided over a mass commemorating their 100th anniversary.
Daryl Williams

Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan and parishioners, got to honor sisters of of the Order of Black Nuns at a mass on Oct. 7.

The sisters of the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary were celebrated for their work in their community, at a mass at the Church of St. Charles Borromeo in Harlem, also commemorating their 100th year anniversary. The happy nuns were delighted by their community’s support, especially the Archbishop.

“It was fantastic — it was very well attended mass and the choir was fantastic,” said Sister Gertrude Lilly Ihehacho, who was pleased with the mass.

“The archbishop is our shepherd in the archdiocese, and this was the second time we met with him — it’s amazing and that’s what inspires us to still do greater work in the black community.”

The nuns celebrated their 100th anniversary early this year, and is only one of three orders consisting of mostly black nuns in the country. It was founded in 1916 during a time of different social attitudes — an attiude that would create the strong community, said Inchehacho.

“Our founders are one white man and one black woman, and together they forged an allegiance and a black community during a time of a lot of discrimination,” she said. Black woman: The founders were Father Ignatius Lissner and Mother Mary Theodore.

“That community they founded is still here — we were founded against all odds and we are happy to reach this milestone.”

The nuns — all between the ages of 31 and 94 years old — currently operate a food pantry in Staten Island, which helps them feed 20,000 people a year, and a children’s day care in Harlem. Although the nuns are now a smaller group, having seen a decrease in members as older sisters retired, Ihehacho says a century later they are seeing a growth and hope to see more women join their sisterhood and support their social justice mission.

Nearly doubling in members, they grew to 22 nuns from 12. But while Ihehacho says one of her objectives is growing the sisterhood — which gained two new recent members — making their community proud is their main goal and more members would be a bonus.

“Next year don’t be surprised if we have 50 nuns or stay with the same number as we now have,” she said.

“But we will continue to expand our mission and we hope to expand the number of our food pantries. We are happy and very satisfied, and love all those who worked with us.”

Reach reporter Alexandra Simon at (718) 260–8310 or e-mail her at asimo[email protected]local.com.

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