Harlem's Handmaids

Located on a corner just steps from Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, New York, is the residence of a special group of women. Modest yet powerful, the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary chose a spiritual life over a secular one. Black, single and mostly celibate in sisterhood these women come together in faith and service to aid a thriving community. Harlem’s Handmaids, a documentary short, sheds light on this group of African American nuns living and working in Harlem.

Arriving in New York City 1923 at the request of Cardinal Patrick Hayes, the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary is the only predominant African American congregation of nuns located in New York City and is only one of three predominately African American orders in the United States. Many of the women have been a part of the Handmaids of Mary for 50 years or longer. Formed largely due to racism, lack of opportunity to join white congregations, these women represent a unique group living and working in a historic and sacred context, taking vows and becoming nuns in a closed society with strict rules and demanding traditions, that for a time did not welcome nuns of color.

To see an African American nun, minus the filter of television or film raises eyebrows, and it’s no wonder. According to the National Black Catholic Congress, there are only 300 African American nuns in the United States. It is a remarkable number, considering that out of the estimated one billion Catholics in the world, one-fourth is of African descent. As part of one of the most powerful and dominant religions in the world, the Handmaids of Mary are a triple minority—black, women, and nuns within a large established religion. Further surprising are the dwindling numbers of African American nuns joining.

The Roman Catholic sisters’ have sustained their work over the years and expanded their reach, yet as successful as they may be, their legacy is at risk. Exciting career options for women and well-publicized controversies swirling around the Catholic Church have diminished its appeal. Once a thriving congregation with nearly 80 participants, the Harlem Handmaids membership has dropped down to about twenty. The Handmaids of Mary, who are frail, elderly and few, have virtually little hope of embracing potential candidates into the sisterhood.

In Harlem’s Handmaids, the sisters, in their own words discuss their struggles and uniqueness, but mostly share their love of service and faith to help others despite the challenges to themselves and the world around them.

** Originally produced in 2006, The Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary are currently celebrating 100 years of service in 2016.

  • Delores Edwards
  • Delores Edwards
  • Delores Edwards
    The Men of the USS Mason
  • Project Type:
    Documentary, Short
  • Runtime:
    13 minutes 55 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    August 1, 2006
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
Director Biography - Delores Edwards

In the nine years Delores Edwards attended Catholic school, she never laid eyes on an African American nun. Traveling to work Ms. Edwards passed by a small convent every day and became curious. After doing some research, she learned about the group of African American nuns living in Harlem and decided to produce her own documentary short. Without funding, Ms. Edwards turned to MNN, the city’s cable access channel to gain access to equipment and learn how to edit on Final Cut Pro where she produced, wrote and directed Harlem’s Handmaids.

Her documentary work includes The Men of the USS Mason, an hour-long film for PBS that chronicled the plight of African-American servicemen in the Navy during WW II as a Contributing Producer. She was an Associate Producer on Fighter Destroyer Escorts, a full-length documentary on the 13,000 World War II sailors that served on ships during the war.

A producer, writer and director, Delores Edwards’ work is diverse and varied spanning news, talk, documentary, entertainment television and digital media. Some of her credits include ABC News & ABC News Children’s Specials, OWN, The Oprah Winfrey Show, VH1, BET and Good Day New York interviewing, writing and producing numerous profiles and features on celebrities, newsmakers and artists. A graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, Ms. Edwards began her career at ABC News Nightline.

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