The Nuns of Harlem: Unbroken Vows

“Sometimes, people who do not know our life feel that we are magic people,” said Sister Precilla Takuh. “We are just normal people, like any other person, but because we have that call, we responded to it and became who we are.”

Sister Takuh is a nun in the Order of the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, based in a brick house in Harlem, one of only three predominantly black orders in the country. Once, there were more than 80 Handmaids. Now there are just 14, seven of whom are retired. The order almost closed in 2014, but decided instead to recruit more actively and now has seven new women going through the “formation” process. On Tuesday, the Handmaids will celebrate the order’s 100th anniversary.

This winter, Teresa Mathew set out to photograph the rhythms of a Handmaid’s life.“One thing that really interested me about nuns,” said Ms. Mathew, 23, herself the niece of a nun in India, “is that we tend to see them as a relic and as something from a bygone age — and to see them in a subservient role, where women aren’t empowered. Just from knowing my aunt and knowing the work that the nuns do, I know that’s not true.”

The Handmaids were founded in Georgia in 1916, after a state law was proposed to bar whites from teaching black children. The sisters were intended to be an order of teachers. (The bill did not pass.) In 1924, the Handmaids moved to New York City, at the invitation of Cardinal Patrick Hayes, who wanted to open a day nursery for working families in Harlem.

The Handmaids continue to run St. Benedict’s Day Nursery on West 124th Street, near the mother house. Two of the nuns operate a pantry on Staten Island. The order includes a doctor, who left her medical practice in Nigeria when she felt that God was calling her, and a widowed grandmother from the Bronx. Sister Takuh, who is in her early 40s, is from Cameroon.

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