Beasley, Mathilda, Mother

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Foundress; b. New Orleans, 1834; d. Savannah, 1903. Her mother was a Creole of African and European ancestry, her father was Native American. Orphaned at a young age, she came to live and work in Savannah, Georgia. She taught black children in her home, in secret, because instructing such children was against state law at that time. In Savannah, she married Abraham Beasley, a black Catholic and widower from Richmond, Feb. 9,1869. She was baptized in the Catholic Church, at the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, March 27, 1869.

Abraham Beasley was a wealthy entrepreneur, whose business ventures had included running a restaurant, owning a saloon, operating a grocery store and dealing in slaves. Upon Abraham's death on Sept. 3, 1877, Mathilda inherited all his property. She, in turn, gave her inheritance to the Catholic Church. The only request she made in return was that some of the proceeds would be used to found a home for African American orphans.

When Mathilda decided to become a nun, she sailed to York, England, to enter a Franciscan novitiate in 1885, supported in part by Father Oswald Moosmüller, OSB, who had undertaken a ministry to freed slaves in Savannah after the Civil War. On her return to Savannah, she worked with the Poor Clares, a Franciscan order of sisters who taught impoverished black women and cared for orphans for a short time on Skidaway Island, near Savannah.

After Bishop Thomas A. Becker was transferred to Savannah in 1886, he became convinced of the need for "an Orphan Asylum for the colored orphans." He noted that there were "some twenty children under the charge of a mother, one of the colored women, who has spared no pains to teach these little folks." The teacher who "spared no pains" was Mathilda Taylor Beasley.

In 1887, Mrs. Beasley and Father Moosmüller cofounded the "Saint Francis Industrial and Boarding School for Girls," a school for Black African girls. The school offered courses in dressmaking and music, in addition to other subjects.

In 1889, Mathilda Beasley founded the first religious community of African American women in Georgia, affiliated with the Third Order of Saint Francis. It consisted of three members. In 1891, Bishop Becker wrote to Mother Katharine Drexel, asking for financial aid for the Orphan Asylum and urging her to incorporate "Mother" Mathilda's community into her own Blessed Sacrament Sisters. Although no sisters "from the north" were forthcoming, Mother Drexel contributed financial support to the new venture.

When Mother Beasley's little community disbanded the next year, on account of dwindling numbers, she affiliated herself with the Missionary Franciscans. By 1901, her health was no longer good and she was given a little cottage on Price Street, which may have been part of the property she had previously donated to the Church. Mother Mathilda continued to minister to the orphans and to work as a seamstress in order to earn money for the poor.

On Dec. 20, 1903, Mathilda Beasley died while praying in the chapel of her small cottage. She was buried from Sacred Heart Church, in accordance with her wishes. Local newspapers of the time eulogized her, calling her "a notable figure and foundress of Saint Francis Home for Colored Orphans." The papers likewise noted that Mother Beasley's "unparalleled charities had made her the idol of the poor, especially among the Negroes." She was buried in the Savannah's Catholic Cemetery. Her orphanage survived her until the late 1930s or early 1940s.

Bibliography: t. j. peterman, The Cutting Edge: The Life of Thomas Becker (Devon, PA 1982) 196197.

[d. k. clark]