The Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart was founded in post-Civil War Baltimore more than 120 years ago. Thousands of freed slaves had headed north; many settled in Baltimore in the late 1800s. A book titled “The Catholic Church and the American Negro” describes the black community at the time: “It is now generally agreed that while the emancipation [of the slaves] 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…”
In Baltimore, Mary Frances Cunningham—later Mother Demetrias—was dismayed that the black children in the neighborhood of St. Martin’s Parish could not participate in religious education classes inside the church. She began teaching them on the church steps and later obtained permission to hold Sunday School classes for them in the church basement.
She visited the homes of the Sunday School children and the homes of other black children, getting to know the families and learning about their needs and their hopes. She set about finding solutions to the problems of these families.
She soon met three other women who were doing similar work elsewhere in Baltimore, and in August of 1890 they held a retreat to discern the will of God for their work. Afterward, they felt that “God willed the foundation of an institute devoted to the religious instruction of black people and that He willed that they should found it.”
Baltimore’s James Cardinal Gibbons—the first American Cardinal—was an early and staunch supporter of religious education for black children and was committed to forming a religious community “to take up the work for black people.” He accepted and approved the decision of the small band of women to form a congregation; a small house was rented and the first postulants were accepted for membership.
And so began the ministry of the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart.