Elizabeth Barbara Williams was born to a large Catholic family in Baton Rouge. Though she felt called to religious life, there were at the time few options available for an African American woman in the South. For some years she worked as a receptionist for a convent of white nuns. Then, in 1916, she was approached by a French priest, Fr. Ignatius Lissner, who was serving the black Catholic community in Savannah. At the time, laws were under consideration that would prevent white teachers, like the sisters in Lissner’s parish school, from teaching black children. In response, Fr. Lissner wished to start a congregation of black sisters. In Williams, he found an enthusiastic partner. As Mother Theodore, Williams became the founder of the Handmaid of the Most Pure Heart of Mary.
When she proposed laws were not passed, the Handmaid found themselves struggling to find their mission. Though they were largely accepted in the community, they confronted doubts from certain white nuns. As Fr. Lissner noted, “As real Southerners they could not believe a colored woman could make a real Religious Sister…’It is a shame,’ they said. ‘Fr. Lissner may give them the veil, but what will that prevent them from stealing chickens and telling lies?”
Then, in 1923, Archbishop Patrick Hayes invited the Handmaids and relocate to Harlem. There, besides teaching, they operated soup kitchen, a kindergarten, and a shelter for homeless children. In 1929, Williams affiliated her community with the Franciscans. She died in July 14, 1931.