In Memory

Mother Theresa Maxis Duchemin, IHM

April 8, 1810 – January 14, 1892

Mother Theresa Maxis Duchemin, IHM, of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary died on Thursday, January 14, 1892 at Villa Maria in West Chester, Pennsylvania. It is believed she was born in April of 1810 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Theresa was the first U.S.-born African-American woman to become a religious. The child of unwed parents of mixed racial lineage, she still received an education far superior to most women of her time, thanks to the kindness of her adoptive family, the Duchemins. Her upbringing in their Haitian refugee community enabled Theresa to attend a school established for colored children by Elizabeth Lange and Magdalen Balas, also of Haitian origin.

In 1829, at age 19, Theresa was one of the founding members of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first congregation of African-American women in the United States. While serving as General Superior of the congregation, Theresa came into contact with Rev. Louis Gillet who was seeking women religious to teach in the new state of Michigan.

Theresa agreed to help Gillet found a new congregation in Monroe, Michigan: The Congregation of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. After a decade of successful ministry and growth in Monroe, a dispute over the congregation arose in 1859 between the bishops of Philadelphia and Detroit. The bishop of Detroit blamed Theresa, deposed her as General Superior, and sent her to a Pennsylvania foundation, which then became a separate branch of the IHM congregation.

Theresa struggled for years to reunite the two congregations. In an effort to remove herself as an obstacle to reunion, Theresa spent 18 years in exile with the Grey Nuns of Ottawa. During this time, the bishops of Detroit and Philadelphia forbade the IHM sisters to communicate with Theresa. Writings from both bishops indicate scorn for mixed race people and their male dominance over women’s congregations.

During Theresa’s exile, the Diocese of Scranton was formed in 1871 resulting in another split of the congregation into two Pennsylvania branches. In 1885, Theresa was allowed to return to the IHM community in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where she lived her last seven years. She died January 14, 1892, and is buried at the sisters’ cemetery in Malvern, PA.

Memorial contributions may be made to support the retired IHM Sisters c/o the IHM Sisters Retirement Fund, IHM Center, 2300 Adams Avenue, Scranton, PA 18509.

Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan

Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Malvern, Pennsylvania

Below is a telegraph received by The Times in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and published on January 17, 1892


The Oldest Sister of the Immaculate Heart at Villa Maria

Special Telegram to THE TIMES WEST CHESTER, January 16

Rev. Mother Teresa died at the Convent of the Immaculate Heart, Villa Maria, early this morning, aged 81. She was the last of the three or four ladies who made their profession and founded the order many years ago in Monroe, MI.

After remaining awhile in Michigan Sister Teresa went to Scranton (sic), Penn. where a branch of the order was established and which branch finally moved to Reading and thence to West Chester. She was the oldest Sister in the order. She was of French extraction and was born in Baltimore.”

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