Sitting in the office of NativityMiguel Middle School, Sister Timothy Howard, OSP, reminds her students to say, "Excuse me" as they come in for a hall pass. Sister Timothy has taught in Buffalo for nearly 50 years. She is now one of only two Oblate Sisters of Providence in the Diocese of Buffalo.
"Sister Noreen is forever telling me that I turned the lights on in Buffalo and I will turn them out," she said with a laugh.
November is Black Catholic History Month, and Sister Timothy is a part of that history. She learned about the faith in St. Frances Academy, the oldest school for black Catholic children in the United States. She joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first successful religious order established by women of African descent. She is also following in the footsteps of black sisters who inspired her to a lengthy ministry of bringing the message of God's love to her students.
"This is what I am trying to focus on, getting them to see how important it is for them to attend a church," she said. "There is a lot of hard work today trying to get people to know about and how God loves them."
Father James Hector Nicholas Joubert, SS, founded the Oblate order with Elizabeth Lange (later Mother Mary Lange) and Maria Balas to teach and care for African-American children and the Hatian refugees that began arriving in Baltimore in the late 18th century. Along with Rosine Boegue and American-born Theresa Duchemin, they opened a Catholic school for girls in their convent in Baltimore.
After the death of Father Joubert in 1843, the Sulpicians decided not to minister to the Oblates any longer. At the same time enrollment in the school began to decrease and by 1846 had only eight students who paid tuition. The order had to beg on the streets in order to support their ministry. Adding to the order's troubles, one of its founding members, Mother Theresa Duchemin, left the order. These were years that required the determination, faith and perseverance for the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
After a few years of instability, the school began to grow. A bigger school and new chapel were built in 1836. The new chapel is especially significant because it was not only for the use of the sisters, but also used by Baltimore's black Catholics. This would be the first time American black Catholics had their own separate chapel for worship, baptisms, marriages, confirmations and funerals. The order continued to prosper and grow through the early 1840s.
The order then came under the directorship of the Society of Jesus and later, 1871, the Josephite Fathers and Brothers. This was a natural alliance since the mission of the Josephites is to minister to the African-American population. The official directorship lasted until the mandate of an ecclesiastical director was rescinded in the early 20th century.
The order went on to start schools in 18 states. By the 1950s there were over 300 sisters teaching and caring for African-American children.
The Oblate Sisters came to Buffalo in 1961 on the invitation of Msgr. Paul Eberz, pastor of St. Nicholas Parish on Buffalo's East Side. A dozen sisters taught at St. Nicholas School. Sister Timothy came in 1969, also to teach at St. Nicholas. She later taught at the Diocesan Education Campus and Catholic Central before the opening of NativityMiguel in 2004.
"I have enjoyed teaching and try my best to do what Mother Lange asked of her spiritual daughters, to go out and teach and bring the unchurched to God. That's what we are doing," Sister Timothy said.
The NativityMiguel Middle School of Buffalo has been offering intervention in the lives of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students in Buffalo since September 2004. A fifth grade was added in September 2007. The transition of Catholic Central School to a NativityMiguel school began with the arrival of Father James F. Joyce, SJ. In the late 1990s, Father Joyce was sent to Buffalo by the National Office of Jesuit Social. Father Joyce's study of Buffalo's Broadway/Emslie area identified the top concerns as drug abuse and poor grammar schools. To address the problems of schools, Father Joyce brought the Jesuit's "Nativity model" to Buffalo. With the support of then-Buffalo Bishop Henry J. Mansell, who was familiar with the Nativity schools in New York, Father Joyce procured a $300,000 grant from the Cassin Education Initiative Foundation to support the implementation of this model at Catholic Central School.
Father Edward Durkin, SJ, who founded the original NativityMiguel School on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan in 1971, worked with the Oblate Sisters of Providence to establish NativityMiguel's two campuses in Buffalo. Sister Timothy has played a critical role in the education of hundreds of students at the St. Augustine Campus for boys. Through the years, she has never wavered in her commitment to education as the key to her students' future. Sister Timothy's unending devotion to her students earned her the Sister Lucille Socciarelli/Father John Sturm Making a Difference Award in January 2006.
Now, Sister Timothy and Sister Noreen Smith, who also works at NativityMiguel, are the only Oblate Sisters in the diocese.
"We both have been asked, 'Can you get more sisters?' The thing is, all the communities we know have low membership, but the sisters in my community will tell you right out. 'It's too cold in Buffalo,'" she said. Most of the sisters now come from the tropical climates of Cuba, Costa Rica and Africa. About 100 sisters are now in the order, over half serve the Baltimore area. The others serve in various schools around the country.
Sister Timothy now uses a walker and a cane, and sometimes a wheelchair to get around. But she still comes in to do the work of Mother Lange, who helped start her order, and Sister Celmentina, who inspired her to join the order. She likes it when parents and students she has taught in the past recognize her. She hopes to make a real difference in the lives of her students. Sometimes it can be a challenge.
"What we do Monday through Friday can be undone over the weekend and we have to start all over again," she said.