A Catholic education and lifelong vocation
Growing up under segregation, Mary Elizabeth was once taunted with the nickname “chocolate drops” as she ran through a white neighborhood on her way home from school, and although she also was ridiculed as the lone Catholic among Baptist and Methodist peers, she refused to harbor resentment for her treatment.
When the local Catholic high school became segregated under the Christian Brothers and public school seemed like her only option, her parents went to great efforts to ensure that their daughter and her schoolmates could continue their Catholic education.
According to Sister Wilhelmina, as recounted in her biography, her “parents, who did not want me to go to the public high school, got to work and founded St. Joseph’s Catholic High School for Negroes, which lasted until Archbishop Ritter put an end to segregation in the diocese.”
She graduated as valedictorian of the school her parents helped to found and then entered the Oblate Sisters of Providence, one of only two religious orders for Black or Hispanic women. She would remain with these sisters for 50 years under vows.
The habit and the Traditional Latin Mass
During her 50 years in religious life, Sister Wilhelmina witnessed the changes brought by Vatican II and sought to preserve the habit, even constructing one of her own when the sisters stopped producing them.
“She spent so many years fighting for the habit,” said Mother Cecilia, who said Sister Wilhelmina took seriously the idea that the habit signifies the wearer as a bride of Christ.
According to her biography, she made a habit for herself, creating parts of the headdress out of a plastic bleach bottle even as her sisters no longer wore theirs.
As the Catholic Key reported, her homemade habit may have saved her life when she was working as a teacher in Baltimore and the stiff, high-necked collar known as the guimpe deflected the knife of a disgruntled student.
Her biography tells of an occasion when a sister passing her in the hallway pointed at the traditional headdress and asked, “Are you going to wear that all the time?”
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“Yes!” Sister Wilhelmina responded and would later quip, “I am Sister WIL-HEL-MINA — I’ve a HELL of a WILL and I MEAN it!”
After years of trying to get her order to return to the habit, she happened to hear about the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter starting a group of sisters, and she had rediscovered the Latin Mass and fell in love with it, Mother Cecilia said.
“And one day, she packed her bags — and she’s 70 years old, and she went to found this community — just a complete leap of faith.”
In 1995, with the help of a member of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the community began. Over time, it would take on a more contemplative and distinctly Marian charism, with a special emphasis on praying for priests.
In her proposal for a new community, Wilhelmina said she wanted to return to regular observance, something she petitioned for during the general chapter of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. “The wearing of a uniform habit, the surrendering of all monies to a common bursar, the obeying of lawful authority in all departments, the guarding of enclosure and of times and places of silence, and the living together an authentic fraternal life,” she wrote.
In short, in her new community, she imagined a return to the ordinary discipline of religious life.
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