Sister Gertrude Lilly Ihenacho
Joined in 2000, from Nigeria
"Our work here is to educate minds—knowledge is power. And if you educate the minds of the ignorant or those who have no opportunity to be educated, it’s social justice practiced. Religious life is intellectual stuff. To me, it is a call. Because, on the natural, I would not be a nun. That’s how I knew it was a call. Because sometimes I ask myself, What are you doing here? I don’t think I would choose to be a nun. For me to leave my medical practice, it’s God that is calling. It’s a call; it’s not something that you do with your head."
Joined in 2012, from the Bronx
“This inner desire to give myself to God—even as the thought would come up, I would push it down. There was still this desire for more. [My children] were supportive, but afraid they were losing their mother. I’m the matriarch of the family, and they knew their life would be different. I went to [my daughter’s] house unexpectedly. She was sweeping, and she stopped the broom, and she says, ‘I had this vision that you got rid of all your things and you joined the nunnery.’ I started laughing and I said, ‘You don’t know how true this could be.’ ‘But I know,’ she says, ‘I saw it, mom.’”
Joined in 2015, from Guyana
“[In 2013] I was woken up, like 5 in the morning, with a voice that says ‘Mary.’ It pierced my heart, and I knew. I said, ‘I know who you are, I know, because only you know my baptism name. I have to leave everything. I offer my life to you. Wherever you send me, whatever you want me to do, I will do.' You’ll know right away that yes, you’re called, and you have to go. There’s nothing else that you would want to stay behind for, because it is so piercing that you just drop everything. You drop everything and go.”
Joined in 2014, from Nigeria
"When I was little, I had this passion for becoming religious because—even when I was young—I had [nuns] as friends. I liked the way they dress, the habits. And I thought, 'Oh, I want to be a nun.' I have the call, so I knew that married life wasn’t going to work. The first day I was going to [high] school, someone called [to] me. I tried to ignore the person, and he said, 'I have a message for you. You don’t know me and I don’t know you, I just have a message.' And I said well, let me just give him a listening ear. I walked up to him and he said, “You are going to be an evangelist.”
Joined in 2014 ; from Nigeria
"We are from different countries: not just Nigeria and America, we have Sierra Leone, Cameroon, people from the West Indies. People from different backgrounds, orientations, cultures, coming together to live as one. When I came to America, language was a struggle because I speak British English. I had to learn how to write American English, how to listen carefully to understand the way Americans pronounce. You have to really be humble to strive to understand others. But, sincerely, there is beauty in diversity."
Joined in 2009 from Cameroon
"My parents don’t want me to become a nun because it is countercultural—a young woman cannot grow up and decide not to have children or have a family. When I came here, [the sisters] were so warm, they accepted me. This is where I belong. I love Harlem—part of it looks like my own neighborhood at home. Sometimes people who do not know our life feel that we are magic people. We are just normal people, like any other person, but because we have that call we responded to it and became who we are.”
Joined in 2015, from Nigeria
"I had a desire in me that was telling me 'Can you think of any other thing [to do]?' And I said no. [The desire said] 'There are many people to help, and if you are tied up somewhere, like marriage, you won’t be able to fulfill that.'"
From St. Croix, Virgin Islands
"I love [Harlem]. I love children, and it’s so beautiful working with those little people. But now, Harlem is different. With a nickel, I could drive all the way in New York in the train. Not today."
Joined in 2012, from Nigeria
"I’m the director and distributor of the food pantry; I’ve been doing this since last year. I find joy in doing that. Each day I don’t serve the poor, it’s like I’ve not done anything. I knew God was calling me to serve people, to be a servant. When I [found] out that this is what [the sisters] do, I said, 'Oh, this is what I really want to do, to help people.' I have that zeal to help people with my own, little, generous heart."
Joined in 1988, from Manhattan
"When people see you in a habit, they realize that there must be a God somewhere. I had just received my habit and I was walking in the street in Harlem. There was a man losing his breath, and I went over to him. He needed oxygen, so I threw my coat on the ground and got on top of him to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. And some nut in the crowd yelled, 'What are you doing on top of him? You’re a sister!'"
Joined in 1953, from New Jersey
"I got tired of running from the Lord. He chased me, and I ran. I mean, I ran, and he was pursuing me. I went [to visit a convent in Philadelphia] and I still didn’t want to be a sister. I still didn’t want to wear those clothes. Sunday afternoon I went to Benediction. Father blessed the people, and all of a sudden I saw nothing but a sea of black veils. I got up, tears running down my eyes, and I ran out of the church. And all of a sudden I heard this soft, sweet voice that was our Blessed Mother, I knew it was. “It’s all right, my child. It’s all right,” she said."
Joined in 1948, from Central Harlem
"I entered the year after I graduated from high school. I didn’t realize that at that time practically all of the communities were not accepting [black sisters]. I was at the leadership conference, and the sister in charge of the Franciscan federation asked to see all the sisters. I wanted to know if there were any black sisters going to the meeting in Assisi. I knew I was the only African-American Franciscan leader of a congregation. I also knew we didn’t have the money for me to go. She said, ‘Oh, I don’t think so, and I think I can get a scholarship for you to go!’"
Joined in 1990, from Charleston, SC
"My family was Baptist, but I was always intrigued by Catholics—I had classmates, and they seemed to be smarter than regular people. I felt so complete doing [God’s] work; my favorite thing was being the director the St. Benedict’s Day Nursery for three or four years—I love children and working with them. [When I first joined the congregation] everything was challenging, realizing that women are women—no matter where you come from, we all have that one bond. We’re not perfect, but we do the best we can."
Joined in 1999, from Manhattan
"In those days, if you were going to be received [into the order], you were dressed as a bride. At the reception you wore a wedding dress and all that, and at the altar you were given a bundle, and in that bundle was your habit. The most rewarding thing I’ve done was working with the children and, later on, seeing them grown, some of them married, children of their own. For me, that was really a privilege. I hope one day, when the Lord calls me home, I will be up there with the sisters and all the other folks I knew down when we were on earth."