Friday, April 06, 2012

An Urban Saint

In the Arms of God

There used to be a feature in the Reader's Digest entitled "The Most Unforgetable Character I Ever Met". Today I learned of the death early this morning, early on Good Friday, of one of my most unforgetable characters.  Betty had a most memorable character. For over ten years I brought Holy Communion to her on Sunday mornings. I'd been ask to take this on by a close friend of mine who had already been bringing Communion to Betty for many years, always on Tuesday mornings and always along with fresh fruit and vegetables. My friend continued to do this for many more years. My appointments with Betty ended with my entrance into the monastery.

There is so much more I want to say about Betty. However, at this time, by way of introduction, I post the obituary I wrote long ago and put aside for this day. It is great comfort to me that this wise woman, always close to the Lord, is now whispering compassionate pleas while in the embrace of her Beloved.

Athalie “Betty” Elizabeth Wimbish

c. 1950

Kingston, NY – Athalie Elizabeth Wimbish, well known to residents of uptown Kingston as a local presence particularly to shoppers at London’s clothing store on North Front Street in Kingston where she was employed from the early 1940s to the late 70s, died at Ferncliff Nursing Home on Good Friday, April 6 at the age of 95.

She was born on August 4, 1916 at
100 Gage Street, Kingston
, the daughter of Andrew and Blanch Elizabeth Wimbish and grand-daughter of Hannah “Hattie” Elizabeth Jackson. She proudly spoke of the African-American and Mohawk heritage received from her father and mother and the Dutch cultural influence of her maternal grandmother. She graduated from Kingston High School in 1934. There she wrote interviews for “Dame Rumor” and played basketball. The year book indicated that she was college bound and spoke of missionary work in Africa.

Kingston High School
Her childhood was spent in
Albany Avenue
mansions where her grandmother served as housekeeper. One employer was the owner of the Fuller Shirt Factory. In these settings and as a precocious child of mixed race she was exposed to a variety of educational influences. Her grandmother provided religious formation at both St. John’s Episcopal Church on
Albany Avenue
and the AME Zion Church on
Franklin Street

In the late 1930s Betty Wimbish experienced the excitement of the Harlem Renaissance and her first trip to Europe. She returned to Kingston to care for her mother and grandmother, working first at Montgomery Wards where her mother was the elevator operator. Beginning in 1943, she fulfilled many tasks for London’s, including inventory, accounts receivable, shipping aid packages to Stanley London’s relatives in Europe and secretarial assistance to Mrs. London who was President of Hadassah, a Jewish organization for women.

First attracted to the Catholic faith during her time in New York City, she was received into the Church in the 1950s at St. Mary’s Church in Kingston which was very welcoming to people of color. After being rejected in an effort to become a Catholic sister due to her race, she made a decision to serve the Church in every other way possible; catechist at St. Mary’s; prayer support to any number of priests including Rev. Daniel Egan known as the “Junkie Priest”; ecumenical efforts in concert with the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement at Graymoor, Garrison, NY, and fund-raising for overseas missions.  She was a member of a world-wide mission tour in 1965 which included stops in Hawaii, Japan, India and the Holy Land. In India she sat on the dais during Mass celebrated by Pope Paul VI.

Around the time of her conversion to Catholicism Ms. Wimbish made a life choice, a preference for personal poverty and simplicity motivated by her deep faith and supported by an active spiritual life. By the 1970s she had assumed this persona to such a degree that she became known only as “Black Betty”, dressed always in black with a kerchief or beret covering her head at all times. She was readily recognized on uptown streets as she walked to and from daily Mass at St. Joseph’s Church and on to work. For more recent arrivals to town she merely seemed to be a local character, the woman in black who swept the floors at London’s clothing store.

After retirement in 1976, she became an urban hermit, praying constantly, serving as confidant and aide to the poor and as a conduit of funds she received from more fortunate friends. Agnes Scott Smith, who taught Athalie Wimbish at Kingston High School, now deceased, described her as “quietly pious, an enigma who became a nun without going into the convent.”

Athalie Elizabeth Wimbish is survived by a nephew Sherwood Harvey and his wife Venice and one grand nephew who were devoted to her care during these last years. She is also survived by her friends Mary Cicale and Sr. Hildegard Pleva, OSsR, her spiritual sisters who cherish memories of her wisdom and holiness They are forever marked by her influence.

1 comment:

Daisy said...

What a beautiful woman, Hildegard. Thank you for sharing her story with us.