There are only three orders of African-American nuns in the United States, and one in the heart of Harlem will celebrate its centennial next Tuesday, reports the New York Daily News.
The nuns of the Motherhouse of the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary in Central Harlem say they are often called “Whoopi Goldberg” on the streets because the Oscar-winning actress portrayed a black nun in the Sister Act film franchise.
“A lot of people we talk to today, they didn’t know there are black nuns here in Harlem,” Gertrude Ihenacho, aka Sister Gertrude, said. “They say, ’Black nuns? We never knew they existed.’”
The Daily News reports that the order was formed in Savannah, Ga., in 1916 because of legislation that prohibited white clergy from educating and providing pastoral care to African Americans.
It moved to Harlem in 1923 and is best-known for its preschool education programs, from which Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel graduated. The order still serves the poor and working class in the neighborhood through community service and its affordable St. Benedict’s Day Nursery, serving children ages 2-4, which stays open extra-long hours to accommodate families holding down more than one job.
The nuns have hit on some hard times over the last century, and their order was going to close up shop in 2014. Yet when Pope Francis (also in the Franciscan order) issued a stirring call to duty, the nuns’ faith was renewed.
“When we heard the pope say, ‘Get out of your comfort zone; go out to the communities and serve,’ we decided to make things new,” Ihenacho said.
The sisters started a website dedicated to social justice and tried to recruit younger women to serve the poor, including in Ihenacho’s native Nigeria.
“We seek out those whose rights are being denied. Everyone has rights to the basic needs of life, rights to food, rights to housing, water, many things. There are some in the land of plenty who are hungry. They shouldn’t be,” Ihenacho said.
The efforts paid off. There are now 15 sisters in New York, two in other states and three more in training in Nigeria, according to the News.