Social Justice and Pastoral Care (Micah 6:8 & 1 Peter 5:2-3)

Mission Statement

In the spirit of Francis and Clare, Father Lissner and Mother Theodore, and compelled by the love of Jesus, we, the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, are committed to joyful evangelization and empowerment of people, especially those experiencing discrimination.

The Love of God Impels Us

Mother Theodore and Fr. Lissner

Co -Founder Mother Mary  Theodore and  Founder Fr. Ignatius Lissner, SMA

In the twentieth century, America was in a period of great social, economic and political change. During this period the caste system between the races in the south became solidified. African Americans gradually lost their civil rights. Discrimination by laws was enforced on the streets, in restaurants, hotels and all public places.

Since the 1870’s, efforts had been made to recurit European specialist missonary agencies for what was referred to as the colored Apostolate, but progess was painfully slow. It was against this background that bishop Benjamin Kiely of Savannah-Atlanta was informed by Rome that pastoral provision for blacks in his diocese  was wholly inadequate and that he should recurit the society of African Missions to take on the task. Thus it was that on December 17,1906, FR. Lissner recieved a letter from Bishop Kiely offering the exclusive pastoral charge of the diocese’s African-American population to the SMA. Fr. Lisserner himself went to Rome where he proposed his plans for establishing missions to serve the black population in the principal cities of Georgia. Receving the blessing of Pope Pius X, Fr. Lissner returned to America and,along with Alsatian SMAs who came to America to help him, during the next six years, established six churches and seven parochial schools in Georgia.

In 1915, the Georgia State Legislature purposed a Bill that would outlaw the instruction of Black children by White teachers. The Bill would also outlaw White ministers or pastors from preaching to a black congregation in their churches. Rev. Ignatius Lissner, SMA, a member of the Society of African Missions who established three (3) missions for black children was alarmed. These children were being taught by a white congregation, the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. If this Bill was passed who would teach the children, and who would minister to and evangelize the black people in the Black Catholic church?


The founder is Fr. Ignatius Lissner, SMA, and the Co- Founder is Miss Elizabeth Williams, who became Mother Mary Theodore, FHM, and first Superior General.

It was under these circumstances that Rev. Lissner, a white Catholic priest from France, with Miss Elizabeth Williams, an African American woman, founded a new congregation, the Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary in Savannah, Georgia in 1916.

This title was chosen to inspire the members of the congregation to serve their neighbors and each other “with the same zeal and love with which Mary served her son Jesus Christ”.

Being led by the spirit and Divine Providence the community moved to New York and the Sisters began various missions. They founded St. Benedict’s Day Nursery School, Early Childhood Education Programs, Catholic Elementary Schools, an After School Program, Food Pantries, a Senior Citizens Center and Summer Camps. The Franciscan Handmaids of Mary was founded as a Black congregation but today, we are a multicultural congregation that welcomes women from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

The Revitalized Era 2011

Filled with hope, led by the Spirit, our small multicultural community looks forward to our Centenary Celebration in 2016. Imitating our founders, we move forward in hope and confidence in Divine Providence to revitalize the congregation.


The Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, invites you to come and journey with us as we strive to follow in the footprints of Jesus Christ. Some post-secondary education is required. Our ministries include: Promotion of Catholic social justice teaching. Youth evangelization, Health Outreach, Family life and natural healing ministries, Education to all, especially the most vulnerable, Pastoral Ministry, and advocating for victims for social in-justice.

Read more about our vocations, or contact us.

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