African American Studies


Her mother and father were from St. Croix, Virgin Islands and St. John’s, Antigua respectively and they met at St. Mark the Evangelist School. They both graduated from St. Mark’s Elementary School, and they married when they were about 18-19 years old. The family lived initially in Harlem but when her parents separated, she moved with her mother to the Bronx, which she felt was “less crowded … just so bright and so beautiful.” She joined the Franciscan Handmaids of Mary, after some sisters from the Oblate Sisters of Providence from Maryland visited the Blessed Sacrament Sisters, and a nun gave her a little booklet about their community. Her father was Protestant and later in life he became a bishop in the African Orthodox Church. Her great uncle, Archbishop McGuire started the African Orthodox Church, and was one of the spiritual advisors for Marcus Garvey.

The Franciscan Handmaids of Mary were founded in Savannah, Georgia in 1916 by Father Ignatius Lissner, who was a missionary in Africa. When he initially came to the United States, he was assigned as a missionary in Georgia, and he established a number of schools and churches, but circa 1914-1915, there was a proposed bill that was going to outlaw white sisters or white people from teaching black children. So he was always interested in native vocations and he tried to get sisters from Holy Family or from the Oblates, but they didn’t have any sisters to spare. At that time, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, although founded for African Americans and Indians, did not accept African Americans, because Mother Drexel feared impacting on the two black congregations, but there was also prejudice. Father Lissner wanted “Black sisters for black children.” Eventually the Order was asked to come to New York to start a day nursery.

Her mother supported her decision but asked her to wait for a year after high school. She worked in a sugar factory in Long Island called Jack Frost and also as a domestic worker, through word of mouth. Sr. Loretta was educated at Manhattan Extension and the College of Mount St. Vincent. After Catholic University she was assigned as Pastoral Associate at St. Aloysius, so she attended Dunwoody to take courses in masters of religious studies. As Pastoral Associate, she was in charge initially of the religious education program, and sometimes organizing prayer services, visiting the sick. She taught seventh and eighth grade combined in Wilmington, North Carolina, for one year in 1954-55 and it was her first experience of segregation. She had the “joy and privilege of attending the first meeting of the National Black Sisters’ Conference, and ... I learned so much because we were taught mostly by white sisters, and so I didn’t know too much about my own history I’d say.”

She socialized with a few neighbors and they went to the Savoy. A friend of her sister sang at the Apollo. St. Mark’s used to have a dance fundraiser, and she was in a band for a while before joining the nuns. She later visited her sister and mother in their neighborhood (Clinton and Kings) and felt that the deterioration “ just seemed unbelievable”. Her family drifted away from involvement in their local church although St. Augustine's were one of the first churches to have a gospel choir, established by Fr. Jeffers in the late 1970's. “ Mrs. Lafory ... was one of the first ones that came to St. Augustine’s back in the 20’s when they were accepted in the church but not in the school, and she had memories … of going to mass and sitting next to little girls, and how they kind of take their dresses so it wouldn’t touch the other person’s dress, so in other words it was not that welcoming.” The congregation eventually embraced African and African American culture as an integral part of the religious experience- “we’ve been using even the Nguzo Saba, the principles for Kwanzaa, particularly since you realize that you’re dealing with people sometimes that come from public school. They know the principles, so to kind of relate them to the Catholic – not simples but the faith – to begin with that and to show them the relationship.” It is difficult to attract new recruits (especially young people) to the church although there are some older ladies entering the order. She feels it is important to let people know that she feels her life as a religious has purpose; whether she is teaching, nursing or “helping somebody fill out immigration papers... Lord I’m available to you to do what you want to do in me and through me for my brothers and sisters.”

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Theresa, Loretta.mp3 (61269 kB)