Religious leader, educator
The co-founder of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, an order of Roman Catholic nuns devoted to education, Theresa Maxis was an important figure in the development of Catholic education in the American Midwest. The extent of her contributions, however, has been largely obscured by church authorities. Maxis was apparently a charismatic figure who was gifted at motivating a growing religious community on the American frontier. But she encountered resistance from the white male Catholic hierarchy, motivated at least partly by racial and sexual discrimination. Key aspects of Maxis's background were later excised from church histories.
Maxis was born Marie Almaide Maxis Duchemin in 1810 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father, Arthur Howard, was a white military officer of British citizenship. Maxis's mother, Marie Annette Maxis Duchemin, was a biracial woman, a nurse, who had come from the island of Santo Domingo (from the French-speaking part that is now Haiti) in 1793 as a girl, with a white French family named Duchemin; Maxis's material grandparents had died in the slave revolts that shook the Caribbean in the 1790s. Maxis grew up with light skin and an ability to pass as white if she chose to do so. She recalled at the end of her life that, at age eight or nine, she stood at a doorway at the Howard house watching the man whom she had been told was her father, although he may not even have known that she existed.
As a young woman of mixed racial background in Maryland, which permitted slavery at the time, Maxis's prospects were not bright. Yet she succeeded in getting a good education at a boarding school operated in the home of two women from Haiti, Elizabeth Lange and Marie Magdalen Balas. Maxis learned to speak French, English, and Latin, and she became conversant with other subjects, ranging from mathematics to needlework. At age 19, Maxis joined with Lange, Balas, and another woman named Rose Boegue, to form a new congregation called the Oblate Sisters of Providence; they intended "to consecrate themselves to God, and to the Christian education of young girls of colour," according to Building Sisterhood: A Feminist History of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Oblate Sisters of Providence may have been the first Catholic congregation composed specifically of women of African descent.
Mother Died in Cholera Epidemic
Several factors combined to push Maxis toward a path of spiritual leadership. One was a cholera epidemic that struck Baltimore in 1832 and claimed the life of her mother, who had volunteered her nursing services at the almshouse of the Oblate Sisters. Another was the decision of the growing congregation of Afro-Caribbean women to choose Maxis as general superior in 1842, replacing the ailing male leader, a sympathetic priest named Nicholas Joubert. A third set of experiences that impressed Maxis as a young woman was the intensification of white racism in Baltimore in the decades preceding the Civil War. The women of the Oblate Sisters were harassed, and white mobs threw rocks through the windows of the small school they had established. It became harder for the school to attract students, and the Sisters were forced to take in washing and sewing in order to make ends meet.
Alone with no family ties, and having endured frightening experiences, Maxis (in the words of historian Marita-Constance Supan, writing in Building Sisterhood) "developed a strong reliance on God's Providence and a parallel inclination to clutch life's reins in her own hands through decisive action." When two Belgian-born priests came to Baltimore in 1843 and discussed plans for a new Catholic school in what was then the wilderness of southeastern Michigan, Maxis saw her chance. The two priests were Peter Paul Lefevere, the Bishop of Detroit, and Belgian national, Louis Florent Gillet. Gillet was a member of a sect called the Redemptorists that emphasized personal forms of devotion and worship—something that fit perfectly with Maxis's own attitudes.
The exact sequence of events that led Maxis to Michigan is unclear, but in 1845 she left Baltimore for the ten-day overland journey to Monroe, Michigan, where Gillet had already settled and had begun celebrating Mass with the area's spread-out Catholic worshippers. Maxis decided that she could leave racial discrimination behind by concealing her African descent, and though she brought one of her Oblate companions, Anne Constants Shaaff, to Michigan, she rejected another because her skin was too dark. Known up to that time as Marie Therese Duchemin (or as Mother Marie Therese), she became Mary Theresa Maxis.
Lived in Log Cabin
Gillet and Maxis excitedly made plans for the new religious community and school, which grew slowly but attracted young women from neighboring communities who wanted to join and serve as teachers. At first the school was intended to serve French-speaking girls in the still heavily French-speaking area; later the language of instruction changed to English. The community became the Sisters of Providence; later it was renamed the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The sisterhood's school was called St. Mary's. The first residence of the new sisterhood was a log cabin. Maxis recorded the community's experiences in a diary called the Monroe Motherhouse Chronicles, recalling (as quoted in Building Sisterhood) that "[t]he roads were often so bad that they [the sisters] were in danger of falling at each step; this, however, for them was a recreation, for they considered themselves fortunate in not breaking their legs or necks: this must be told to testify the truth, and show the power of grace."
Maxis was the community's de facto leader even when Lefevere sent figureheads from Detroit. As one sister quoted in Building Sisterhood wrote, "As Mother Theresa was the first, she was looked on as the one to whom to go, although Sister Alphonsine was appointed superior." Maxis herself became the community's superior in 1852. "I think she must have carried some African influences with her…in the way she relied on the whole community to discern where the spirit was moving," Detroit religious leader Rev. Marsha Foster Boyd, who produced a one-woman play about Maxis in 2007, told David Crumm of the Detroit Free Press. Maxis's own ecclesiastical superiors, however, were never entirely comfortable with her independent attitudes, and later in the 1850s she and her Monroe sisterhood became embroiled in conflict.
What first began to cause problems was the Redemptorist sect's withdrawal of financial support from the Sisters in 1855. The reasons were apparently purely financial—the school was losing money—but the cutoff angered Bishop Lefevere, and part of his anger was directed toward Maxis, who was strongly sympathetic to Redemptorist ideas. He appointed a new leader for St. Mary's, the Rev. Edward Joos, who had recently immigrated from Belgium and spoke English poorly. Maxis was undaunted. She and a group of other Sisters once hitchhiked by carriage to a mass being celebrated in Erie, on the Ohio line, after fund shortages prevented them from engaging transportation of their own. The portrait of Maxis that emerges from her writings and letters is one of a woman with boundless energy, always thinking about new projects.
At a Glance …
Born Marie Almaide Maxis Duchemin, 1810, in Baltimore, MD; changed name to Mary Theresa Maxis, Monroe, MI, mid-1840s; died on January 14, 1892, in West Chester, PA. Education: Boarding school for Caribbean refugees, Baltimore, MD. Religion: Roman Catholic.
Career: Oblate Sisters of Providence congregation for Catholic women of color, co-founder, 1829, general superior, 1842; Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, co-founder, Monroe, MI, 1845, superior, 1852-59; IHM missions, Pennsylvania, nun, 1859-67; Grey Nuns Convent, Ottawa, ON, Canada, nun, 1867-85; West Chester IHM Motherhouse, West Chester, PA, nun, 1885-92.
Awards: Michigan Women's Hall of Fame, inducted 2001.
One of those projects was a new Redemptorist mission in Reading, Pennsylvania, which Maxis had been invited to organize by Redemptorist Philadelphia bishop John Neumann. Lefevere initially gave Maxis permission to make the trip, but a request for a return visit prompted a serious clash with Joos, who conveyed the bad news of Lefevere's refusal. Joos wrote in a letter to Lefevere (quoted on the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Web site) that Maxis had exploded in anger. "‘I am not,’ she said [Joos wrote], ‘astonished; we have known since long that no one take interest in the Convent, and so all the Sisters know; therefore I have no confidence any longer neither in the Bishop, nor F. Hennaert, nor you, and so you may write the Bishop who can give me my demission.’"
Cut Off from Community
Lefevere angrily complied, sending Maxis to Pennsylvania on a permanent basis, splitting the new Pennsylvania missions off from the original Monroe community, and forbidding her to have any further contact with the other Sisters at St. Mary's—a rule that many disregarded as Maxis successfully convinced them to follow her. In addition to internal Catholic politics, Lefevere was clearly motivated by the racism of his time. He knew of Maxis's racial background from his previous visit to Baltimore, and he wrote to a Pennsylvania associate (as quoted in Building Sisterhood) that Maxis had "all the softness, slyness, and low cunning of the mulatto."
The Sisters' two new missions in Pennsylvania flourished, but Maxis was troubled by what she saw as her role in the splitting of the congregation in two. She wrote repeatedly to Lefevere trying to heal the wounds, but her letters were never answered. Finally, in 1867, she decided to go into voluntary exile as a way of removing herself as a potential source of conflict. She lived in Ottawa, Canada, at the Grey Nuns Convent, from 1867 to 1885, petitioning repeatedly but unsuccessfully for readmission to the Monroe community. In 1885 she returned to Pennsylvania and lived at an Immaculate Heart of Mary convent, the West Chester IHM Motherhouse, until her death on January 14, 1892.
By that time, histories of the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisterhood were already being rewritten to expunge Maxis's name: it was thought that the revelation of her mixed-race background would hurt fundraising, and her name was actually erased from documents that contained it and could not be concealed in any other way. Maxis lived on in the memories of the women who knew her, but Joos, who was fictitiously elevated to the role of founder of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, intervened late in life to prevent the writing of a biography of Maxis, and threatened to reveal her racial background. The Sisters grew into an influential organization that went on to found the University of Detroit, but the rediscovery of the group's true origins did not occur until the late 20th century, when members of the congregation uncovered Maxis's letters and sought to reconstruct her story. The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary recognized Maxis as their founder only in 2000. The following year, she was elected to the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame.
Gannon, Margaret, ed., Paths of Daring, Deeds of Hope: Letters by and about Mother Theresa Maxis Duchemin, Congregation of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, MI and Scranton, PA, 1992.
Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Building Sisterhood: A Feminist History of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Syracuse University Press, 1997.
Detroit Free Press, March 28, 2007.
Lansing State Journal, October 26, 2001, p. B1.
"Our Co-Founders: Louis Florent Gillet and Theresa Maxis," Congregation of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary,www.ihmsisters.org/www/About_Us/History/founders.asp (July 31, 2007).
"IHM: Mother Theresa Maxis," Congregation of the Sister, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary,http://ihmnew.marywood.edu/2.OurHistory/2IHMTheresaMaxisDuchemin.html (July 26, 2007).
Oblate Sisters of Providence,www.oblatesisters.com (July 26, 2007).