History

We were founded in 1890, just 25 years after the close of the Civil War. Thousands of emancipated slaves had headed north, many settled in Baltimore. A book, “The Catholic Church and the American Negro,” describes the black community at the time: “It is now generally agreed that while the emancipation was in one sense a great boon to the colored people, the manner in which the majority of them were thrown into an entirely different mode of life caused great evils…”

This was the Baltimore in which Mary Frances Cunningham — later Mother Demetrias — began her ministry. Seeing that the black children in her community had no access to religious education, she began holding “Sunday School” classes for them in a church basement. Soon she began visiting the children in their homes, getting to know their families.

She met three other women, known as the St. Joseph’s Guild, who were doing similar work elsewhere in Baltimore, and Mary Frances soon became a member of the Guild teaching staff.

“Discerning the Will of God”

On July 1, 1890, the Guild leased a house and converted it into a small convent with a chapel, dormitories, a dining room and a community room. Their first task was to ready the convent for a retreat, which the women hoped would help them to discern the will of God. At the end of the retreat, three of the women felt strongly that God willed the foundation of a new religious community devoted to the religious instruction of black people and, according to the Mission Helpers history, “God willed that they should found it.”

James Cardinal Gibbons — the first American Cardinal — accepted and approved the decision, and candidates for membership were received and resided in the house as postulants. The Cardinal was an early and staunch supporter of religious education for black children, and from his earliest days in Baltimore he was determined to have a religious community formed to “take up the work for black people.”

“Let Her Go…”

But Mary Frances Cunningham needed the permission of her pastor to join the new endeavor and he refused. She went to him repeatedly, but he continued to refuse. Finally, according to The Early History of the Mission Helpers Community, “she threw herself onto her knees before him and pleaded, ‘For the love of God, let me go!’ But the priest only agreed to let Cardinal Gibbons decide the matter, and he did, with the words: ‘Let her go; something may come of it.’”

And so began the work of the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart.

Among the Community’s earliest endeavors was establishing an industrial school for black women and a professional laundry. These efforts meshed well with Cardinal Gibbons’ priorities of religious education coupled with vocational training for black people.

“Love for All”

In 1895, the Mission Helpers’ ministry was extended to all races. The History notes: “United in their love for the poor, early Mission Helpers banded together to incarnate God’s love for all those who are spiritually or temporally in need.”

In the early years of the 20th century, the Mission Helpers opened day care centers to care for the children of working immigrant families, established a school for the deaf and extended ministries beyond Maryland. We were the first U.S. religious order to open a mission in Puerto Rico.

The 1930s found our Sisters preparing young adults to teach religion and developing specialized teaching methods and materials called “The Adaptive Way,” establishing the Community as a leader in the field of religious education. We continued to teach religion to children and ministered to the entire family.

“New Kinds of Sisters”

In 1962, we answered the call of Pope John XXIII to minister among the people of Venezuela.

Today, Mission Helpers are at work throughout the United States, in Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Our ministry takes us to parishes, hospitals, nursing homes, senior communities and college campuses.

From our earliest days, the Mission Helpers were known as “new kinds of Sisters.” We were not school teachers, we were not nurses, which were the traditional roles of women in the Church. Instead, we went out among the people, reached out to those who were alienated or neglected by society, and responded to their needs.

 

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