Mother Mathilda Beasley, Georgia’s first Black nun

Herb Boyd | 1/21/2021, midnight
With Georgia so much a recent epicenter of political flashpoints it may be important to take a step back and ...
Mother Mathilda Beasley

With Georgia so much a recent epicenter of political flashpoints it may be important to take a step back and recall another period when the state was in the news, mainly then, as now, because of the courage and commitment of a Black woman. Very little is known about Mathilda Taylor other than that she was born November 14, 1832 in New Orleans. Her mother Caroline was owned by James C. Taylor. It was speculated that her father was a Native American from which she is said to have inherited her “extreme height and commanding figure.”

She was a very young woman when she relocated to Savannah with no record when this actually occurred nor the circumstances of how she achieved her freedom. Even more astonishing, by 1859, a year before the Civil War erupted, she was secretly teaching Black children to read, a practice that was completely prohibited and could have cost her punishment or even death. This was just one example of her defiance and determination to share her love of freedom and independence.

During the 1860s, as the war between states raged, Taylor continued her teaching and earned a living working in a restaurant in Savannah. It was called The Railroad House and owned by a Black man named Abraham Beasley. Besides his restaurant, Beasley, a widower, owned land, a produce market, a saloon, and a boarding house, all of which made him a very popular and prosperous citizen. Sadly, he also acquitted wealth dealing in the trading of slaves.

There is no information how this nefarious business affected Taylor but they married in 1869, as the Reconstruction period came to an end, and when Beasley died in 1877, he left her a will of 5 acres of land worth $300 and extensive property holdings on the Isle of Hope, Skidaway Island, as well as property within the city limits of Savannah. According to the Georgia Historical Society, a group of Franciscan nuns arrived on the island in 1884 and were called the “Poor Clares,” and one of the nuns had been a member of that order in York. There is no evidence that Mathilda was affiliated with the nuns, though they shared a number of common goals and objectives.

In the 1880s, Mathilda joined the Catholic Church and went to England to train to be a nun. When she returned to Savannah she was known as Mother Mathilda, and later Mother Beasley, and the state’s first African American nun. As part of her devotion to the church she donated her husband’s estate to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of Savannah and later established an orphanage, the St. Francis Home for Colored Orphans, which was deemed the first such facility for African American girls. In 1890, the facility was moved from E. Broad Street to the site of the newly erected St. Benedict’s Parish. There is much speculation about Mother Mathilda’s motivation for such dedication, and that it grew out of her desire to atone for her husband’s involvement in the slave trade and its subsequent accumulation of wealth.

With Mother Mathilda at the helm, in 1889, the Third Order of St. Francis was founded, thereby becoming the state’s first group of Black nuns. This was a troubling and stressful period of time for the orphanage and the church but Mother Mathilda was determined to keep all of these establishments afloat and flourishing. She initiated fundraising drives and sewing to support her various causes.

No matter the problems her community encountered she remained a formidable force and was never dismayed or defeated by the mounting difficulties. Her sacrifices were well known in the community so much so that it led to the creation of the Mother Mathilda Society and later a park was named to commemorate her accomplishments and her tireless commitment to the bettering of Savannah. When she died December 20, 1903, her obituary in the Savannah Morning News noted that “Protestants speak in the highest terms of her life and character, and among Negroes the feeling prevails that they have lost their best and truest friend and benefactor.” Right up to the moment of her death, she continued to manage the orphanage. According to an account of her death, she was found in her private chapel with hands clasped and stretched toward a statue of the Blessed Virgin and her shroud and burial garment folded neatly with her last will and testament placed on top.

In 2004, she was inducted into the Georgia Women of Achievement.