The initiation of a Handmaid province in the United States began in 1925, when the former Archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Dennis Dougherty extended an invitation to the Handmaids to establish a presence in the United States. The sisters accepted, and in April of the following year, with the trans-Atlantic journey and arrival of Sisters Virginia Vivanco and Gabriela Dillon, the Handmaids began their work. From very humble beginnings in a small house on 34th Street in West Philadelphia, the Handmaids were led by that same faith that guided Raphaela Mary to lay the foundation for their ministry, and by the same hope that guided their predecessors on their journey across the Atlantic.
Once in Philadelphia, not far from the University of Pennsylvania, the sisters began teaching classes for university students and for working girls. There they instructed converts and held retreats and days of prayer. They also had adorers, junior adorers and classes for children in music and art.
From Philadelphia, their work spread; and wanting to pursue the education of children as part of their mission, in 1945, the Handmaids purchased the Lorimer Estate in Wyncote. There they opened Ancillae Academy for girls, where they began teaching kindergarten classes. Eventually, the school developed into separate elementary schools for girls and boys, until in 1968 they merged to form Ancillae-Assumpta Academy. The sisters also planned that Wyncote would be where new members would be trained.
In 1951, the sisters moved from West Philadelphia to Germantown in order to start a high school. An elementary school also began there with the addition of one grade each year. By 1953, the high school for girls, Ancilla Domini Academy, had begun.
In 1957 the William S. Scull family sold their thirty-room mansion on Coopertown Road in Haverford to the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. They named it the Blessed Raphaela Mary Retreat House. The sisters quickly adapted the beautiful home to serve as a place of prayer that could house 50 overnight retreatants.
From the beginning the small group of retreatants grew steadily, not only in numbers, but in wonderful commitment and love for the center and its mission. The ministry was facilitated by the fidelity and hard work of promoters who saw to it that the Retreat House was known and made use of by family, friends and co-workers. The name St. Raphaela Center was adopted after the canonization of their foundress in 1977.
The Handmaids community in Miami, Florida was established in 1975 in response to an influx of Cuban refugees. Nearly thirty years earlier, in 1947, the Handmaids in Cuba had established a school for girls in Miramar. However, the Congregation was later forced to leave the country because of the political situation. Throughout their years in Florida, the sisters have engaged in many ministries according to the needs of the local church and its people.
In January of 1985, the Handmaids traveled to assess the needs of the Archdiocese of Atlanta and to explore the possibilities for them to begin a ministry there. By then, the Atlanta area was experiencing an influx of Hispanics, and the need for Spanish-speaking sisters was overwhelming. Once in Atlanta, the Handmaids proved to be a catalyst in moving the Hispanic apostolate of the Archdiocese and in initiating a number of projects benefitting its people.
As they did with the Atlanta community, in 2002, the Handmaids again responded to the church’s outcry for serving the 14,000 English and Spanish speaking Catholics of Athens and for assessing the possibilities of vocations in the “university town” environment of Athens, with its 30,000 University of Georgia students. Based in a trailer park, their “oasis” serves 2,000 individuals, providing the most basic necessities, in addition to spiritual nourishment.
Most recently, in 2004, the US Province of Handmaids ventured outside of the country to El Salvador and established Project FIAT, Faith in Action Together. This volunteer program, which is part of the Philadelphia community’s Mission Center, assists children and adults in San Salvador and neighboring villages.
Today, in the US province, the sisters are only thirty-eight in number, but ever strong in faith. Their ministries are strong and vibrant. Their work continues, but is not without its challenges.
To sustain their mission, the Handmaids look to the future – the future of a more active lay ministry and more women religious. And so it is that they continue their Journey of Hope, knowing, as did their predecessors, that hope sees the invisible, feels the intangible, and achieves the impossible.