Sister Mary Celine, an elderly nun who taught children for many years, was hit and killed walking on a Harlem sidewalk by a van driven by robbers fleeing from the police.

I’m sure she is in heaven today, praying for their conversion.

But there is more to the story than a sad ending. You see, Sister Mary Celine was from the Franciscan Handmaids, a predominantly black Catholic order.

In the “good old days”, Black Catholics had to face discrimination not only in society (many lived in the South, where Blacks were kept from using “white” facilities),  but in the church.

The first two Catholic priests ordained in the US had to study outside the US because no seminary would accept them. And for girls seeking to be religious, finding an order to accept them was problematic: the cultural differences are bad enough, but nuns are still human, with human faults and sins, so racism caused many to feel uncomfortable in “white” orders.

This 2001 article in the NYTimes tells the story:

”They certainly witness to the faith and the struggle of African-Americans to be Catholic in a church that did not welcome us,” said Sister Anita Baird, president of the National Black Sisters Conference. ”They survived against the odds, certainly on faith, with very little resources and very little support.”…

Although integration in the orders began in the 1950’s and accelerated in the late 1960’s, around the time of the civil rights movement, many black nuns said cultural differences among sisters of different races make predominantly black convents more appealing.

The Franciscan Handmaids are one of several African American Catholic orders, and like their white counterparts, are now dwindling in numbers but not in spirit.

They are still active in New York City and the South. They have an outreach medical mission program in Nigeria, (which accepts lay volunteers for short term medical missions if you have a vacation coming and don’t know where to visit).

As for Sister Mary Celine: The NYTimes has a statement from her fellow sisters:

“We are still in shock at the loss of our sister, a woman of strong faith and courage,” it read. “She was a true Franciscan Handmaid of Mary, concerned about children and the poor.

“We love her so much and shall miss her.”


Nancy Reyes  is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She blogs at Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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