Our cause is social justice and pastoral care. 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. So 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.
From: The Bronx
“I am a widow with three adult children, six grandchildren. This inner desire to give myself to God was a push-pull type thing—even as the thought would come up, I would push it down. I was comfortable, not making a lot of money, but I had my blue fox with my initials inside that I had paid for myself, I had my jewelry, I took my trips. There was still this desire for more. [My children] were supportive, but afraid they were losing their mother, because 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.’”
“Both sides of my family are staunch Catholics. Even my mother considered religious life—she entered for 3 weeks to test it out, and she discovered no, it’s so strenuous. So she started praying to St. Joseph to send her a husband. [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.” He’ll tell you directly, you don’t have to guess. 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.”
The most challenging thing [about being a sister], I would say, is to cope with intercultural dynamics. As Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, 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; building that relationship is something you really have to struggle with. Everybody comes in with their own culture, so you have to be able to understand other sisters. 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.
When I was little, I had this passion for becoming religious because—even when I was young—I had them as friends. I liked the way they dress, the habits. When you see them, they look simple in nature. 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.”
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.”
In those days, if you were going to be received [into the order], you were dressed as a bride. And I had a cousin that was a housekeeper to the priest in another parish, and when she found out about the reception—I was all set to wear a dress I had at home—she had a dress made, with a veil and everything. 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 people—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—to be a part of that. I love being a sister, and I love working with people. And 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.
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.”
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!”
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] religious 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.
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.
From: New Jersey
I got tired of running from the Lord. I really did. 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. And I went to the sister that I liked a lot and I told her and she said well, ok, what you have to do is write the three [Black] convents and find out which one you have to go to. Well, I didn’t have to write—once she mentioned Handmaids of Mary I said I didn’t have to look further than that, because Mary’s been good to me.
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.
From: Central Harlem
I entered the year after I graduated from high school. At the time, 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 Franciscan sisters. When she came, I wanted to know if there were any black sisters, black representation, 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 she knew we didn’t have money—‘and I think I can get a scholarship for you to go!’