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Another Mother Theresa

theresa maxis icon
“Mother Theresa Maxis
The Holder of the Fire”
© 1995 SSIHM Monroe, Nancy Lee Smith, IHM Iconographer

From 1999 to 2014, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), who run SFDS School and the IHM Center For Literacy, also operated a site called the Theresa Maxis Outreach Center at MBS, offering food, clothing, and life management skills training to those in need.

Who was Theresa Maxis?

That’s a complicated, inspirational, and deeply American tale.

Mother Theresa Maxis Duchemin, co-founder of the IHM order, was the daughter of Marie Anne Maxis, a Haitian refugee, brought to Baltimore in the 1790s by a French family named Duchemin. Her father was a British officer, briefly visiting American relatives. Marie Alma was born in 1810, and, like her mother, took the Duchemin name. According to documents in the Scranton IHM Archives, “The Duchemins were childless. Providing the little Marie Alma, or as she was usually called, Almaide. (a San Dominican nickname) …the same advantages of education and training which they would have given a child of their own, they saw her develop into a beautiful cultured woman of extraordinary intelligence…” bilingual in French and English and racially-mixed.

While attending a non-Caucasian Sunday School, Almaide met two young women hoping to establish the first religious order for women of color (long before the Civil War), and a boarding school to educate Haitian refugees. Almaide enrolled as their pupil, which functioned as her novitiate, and became one of the founding Sisters of the Oblates of Providence in 1829, taking the professed name of Theresa Maxis.

When the Baltimore Archdiocese tried to disband the Oblates, Mother Theresa was invited to the newly created state of Michigan. There, with Father Louis Gillet CSsR, she co-founded the IHM Sisters in 1845 with a mission to educate French-speaking immigrant girls. In 1855, Bishop (today Saint) John Neumann invited her to expand the teaching efforts of her sisters to Susquehanna County in the Philadelphia diocese. Then, a “jurisdictional dispute” between the bishops of Detroit and the newly-formed Scranton diocese in 1859 moved Mother Theresa “to the Pennsylvania foundation, which later became a separate branch of the congregation.”

An Immaculata University history recalls her fortitude: “Because of many difficulties and misunderstandings, Mother Theresa was forced to leave…” and spent 17 years exiled with the Grey Nuns of Ottawa in Canada. Bishop Wood invited her to return to West Chester in 1885, where she died in 1892. “Mother Theresa’s legacy of courage, peace and service to the poor continues now in three IHM congregations of Monroe, Michigan; Immaculata; and Scranton, Pennsylvania.”

Perhaps our IHM-strong parish needs a new memorial in her name!

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Introduction

Saint Francis de Sales United in the Most Blessed Sacrament is a Catholic Church located at 47th St. and Springfield Avenue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, not too far from the University of the Sciences and the University of Pennsylvania. Founded in 1890, the parish initially served Irish and German immigrants who were settling in Southwest Philadelphia.. The church building was constructed between 1907 and 1911. Today, its  Byzantine-Romanesque architecture and imposing polychrome Guastavino dome are a local landmark and an anchor in a diverse and vibrant historic neighborhood.

The people who built the church, long ago, also built the community around it. These are some of their stories and the stories of the people who came after them. Hope you enjoy them!