In 2015, journalist Benjamin Parkin of The Africa Paper published a wonderful profile on Sister Patricia Marie Williams, a renowned Black nun and member of the Franciscan Handmaids of Harlem. On that occasion the Handmaids were celebrating their 100th anniversary, and Sister Patricia Marie had been with the order almost from its inception. Their convent in Harlem, as Parkin noted, was struggling to survive with a diminishing number of nuns.
Three years later, the order was further reduced with the death of Sister Patricia Marie, who was 93 when she died. In one way she’s gone, but in so many other splendid ways she remains and her legacy is something that will always stand as a reminder of her contributions, particularly in the realm of education and spirituality.
She was born in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, and entered the Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary in 1945. Eight years later she professed final vows. The early years of her education are not known but we do know that she earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Fordham University and a master’s degree in early childhood education and administration from Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.
For many years she was a teacher at St. Aloysius School in Harlem and also served as an assistant teacher and education director at St. Benedict’s Day Nursery, Manhattan. Her duty as a Eucharistic minister to residents were precious moments for many who gloried in her presence, and this was particularly heartwarming occasions for those affiliated with the Northern Manhattan Nursing Home and to the homebound in Harlem.
Beyond her loving commitment to New York City, Sister Patricia Marie was a teacher and principal at schools in North and South Carolina. She was often a very vocal and visible advocate of pro-life activities and a regular participant in the Pro-Life Black Leadership Conference as well as a member of Black Catholics Against Abortion.
But it was her connection with the convent in Harlem that brought her national and international recognition, and during her many interviews she often recounted the history of the Handmaids that was founded in Savannah, Georgia in 1916. They came into existence in defiance of a law that would prohibit white nuns from teaching Black children, and when the law didn’t pass, the Franciscan Handmaids came to Harlem in 1923. In 1930, the Handmaids joined the Franciscan Order. “The Catholic Church wouldn’t be Catholic if it wasn’t for us,” said Sister Loretta Theresa, a Harlem native and at one time administrative minister for the Franciscan Handmaids’ congregation. “I knew I was Black, I knew I was Catholic.” And when the church was instituted, she continued with her account to the press, “it was made for all of us; my job is to be proud of both.” This reporter, thanks to Brother Timothy Davis, recently appointed executive director of the archdiocesan Office of Black Ministry, was able to travel with him and Sister Loretta on a trip to the Middle East. In her company was an opportunity to learn more about the issues facing Black nuns in general and the Handmaids in particular.
During the early years in Harlem, the order sustained itself through the creation of a laundry business, which included a few other community services.
Their location, called “the Motherhouse” for many years, was next door to the 124th Street Public Library near Marcus Garvey Park. Passersby would marvel at the building where they were housed and where often they could be seen keeping the grounds tidy and discussing the order and its business with inquiries. In 1979, when Pope John Paul II visited Harlem, she was among those countless numbers of Catholics in attendance at the various events.
Primarily, the order was composed of African American nuns but over the years it has grown to become an international body, especially the increasing number of nuns from the Caribbean and Africa. In fact, no American-born nuns have joined since 2001, and the order has opened a convent in Owerri, Nigeria, enlisting three sisters so far, according to Parkin’s article.
A Funeral Mass was celebrated for her on Nov. 19, 2018, at St. Aloysius Church and she was buried at St. Charles Resurrection Cemetery, Farmingdale, N.Y. She is survived by her sister, Dolorita Massiah.