Mother Theresa Maxis

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Mother Theresa Maxis, image courtesy of Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Scranton, PA. Used with permission.

Theresa Maxis was born in Baltimore to unwed parents—her mother a free Haitian and her father a British soldier (who would not acknowledge her). At nineteen she became one of the founding members, and later the superior general, of the Oblates of Providence, the first congregation of women religious of color in the world. In 1845, however, she was persuaded by a Belgian Redemptorist, Fr. Louis Florent Gillet, to open a school for French-speaking girls in Monroe, Michigan, and to establish a new congregation, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Eventually, at the invitation of Bishop John Neumann, the congregation expanded into the diocese of Philadelphia and, later, Scranton.

Mother Theresa earned the disfavor of the bishop of Detroit when the Redemptorists, for financial reasons, withdrew support from the congregation. Blaming Maxis for this, Bishop Lefevre deposed her as superior general and ordered her to leave Monroe. (He wrote to an associate that Maxis had “all the softness, slyness, and low cunning of the mulatto.”) The congregation split in two. Not wishing to be a source of division, Maxis withdrew from her order, finding a home with the Grey Nuns of Ottawa, where she spent the following eighteen years. Finally, she was at last welcomed back to the IHM motherhouse in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where she spent her remaining days until her death on January 14, 1892.

Long written out of the congregation’s history, her true role as founder was only recovered in the late twentieth century.

“Go where the life is.”
—Mother Theresa Maxis, IHM

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.