“For the love of God, let me go…”
–Mary Frances Cunningham, Founder Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart 1859-1940
Her parents, both Irish immigrants, had 13 children; Mary Frances was the oldest.
When she was 10 years old, the family moved to Baltimore, where thousands of freed slaves had settled following the Emancipation Act of 1863. “It was a time,” wrote a Catholic historian, “…when the majority of the colored people were thrown into an entirely different mode of life [that] caused great evils…colored Catholics fell away by the thousands…”
As a young woman in Baltimore in the 1880s, Mary Frances was a devout and active member of St. Martin’s Parish in West Baltimore. She was distressed to see that the black children in the neighborhood were not allowed to receive religious instruction in the church.
The feisty Mary Frances requested and received permission to form a Sunday School for the children and teach them on the steps of the church. One Sunday morning it rained and she took the children into the church basement, a major breakthrough in the late 1880s.
She soon partnered with other women who were working with black children and their families elsewhere in Baltimore. They were known as the St. Joseph’s Guild. In 1890 the women leased a house and began readying it for a retreat, which they hoped would help them to discern the will of God.
At the end of the retreat, the women felt that God had willed the foundation of a community devoted to the religious instruction of black people. James Cardinal Gibbons—the first American Cardinal—accepted and approved the decision, and candidates for membership were received and resided in the house.
But Mary Frances Cunningham needed the permission of her pastor to join the new endeavor. He refused. She went to him repeatedly, but he continued to withhold his permission. Finally, according to the Mission Helpers archives, “she threw herself onto her knees before him and pleaded: ‘For the love of God, let me go!’
The priest finally 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.
Happy Birthday, Mary Frances Cunningham, a.k.a. Mother Demetrias