Friday, March 20, 2015

This tribute was first published here in 2012.  

Death of an Urban Saint
       Athalie “Betty” Elizabeth Wimbish, was familiar to residents of uptown Kingston, New York as a local presence from the early1940s to the early 80s; a women of color dressed entirely in black daily making her way from her home on Prospect Street or from St. Joseph’s Church on to London’s Clothing Store at the intersection of Wall and North Front Street where she was employed for thirty-three years. To those who did not know her history she was just “Black Betty”. Betty died at Ferncliff Nursing Home on Good Friday, April 6, 20012 at the age of 95.
She was born on August 4, 1916 at 100 Gage Street, Kingston,
Kingston High School 1934
the daughter of Andrew and Blanche Elizabeth Wimbish and grand-daughter of Hannah “Hattie” Jackson Betty spoke proudly of the African slave heritage of her father combined with the African, Spanish and Dutch ancestry of her grandmother. She recalled that in her childhood a Dutch dialect could still be heard in Kingston. Athalie Wimbish 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.

Her childhood was spent in Albany Avenue mansions where her grandmother and mother served as housekeepers and her father as driver and handler of carriage horses. One employer was 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.
Following graduation from high school Betty Wimbish ventured to the Big Apple where although disappointed in her effort pursue a nursing education she experienced the excitement of the Harlem Renaissance and later her first trip to Europe. Early in the 1940s she returned to Kingston to care for her mother and grandmother, working first at Montgomery Wards where she replaced her mother as 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 providing secretarial assistance to Mrs. London who was President of Hadassah, a Jewish organization for women. During this time, London’s was the only white owned business that would hire Black teenagers.  Betty spoke of them as “my boys” and took these youngsters under her wing as a woman of color guiding them in the requirements of a responsible working life. Some remained in contact with her for years. The London family was always concerned for Betty’s welfare and that of her family. After her retirement they provided a security system for her home and continued to send  ‘pension’ funds.
First attracted to the Catholic faith during her time in New York City, she was received into the Church in the 1940s 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 because of her race, she made a decision to serve the Church in every other way possible; as catechist at St. Mary’s; as prayer support to any number of priests including Rev. Daniel Egan known as the “Junkie Priest” who was one of the first to draw attention to the need for drug addiction treatment; as participant in the ecumenical efforts of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement at Graymoor, Garrison, NY, and as a tireless fund-raiser 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 a lifetime of contemplative prayer. By the 1970s she had assumed this persona to such a degree that she became known only as “Black Betty”, dressed always in black from head to toe 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 and on to work. For more recent residents of the city 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, now deceased, who taught at Kingston High School, described her as “quietly pious, an enigma who became a nun without going into the convent.” By 1985 Betty’s daily hikes from Prospect Street to St. Joseph’s became too arduous so a few parishioners began to visit her weekly to bring her spiritual food in Holy Communion and also fresh fruits and vegetables for bodily nourishment. A number also kept her supplied with donations which she, a keen judge of character and need, would pass on to others of all shades of color who came to the door seeking guidance or material assistance.  The women who prayed with her came to know her sanctity first hand. Some even came to know her secrets and her wisdom.
With time her memory of the present failed. Yet, memories of the past never faded. She claimed to know the skeletons in many Kingston closets at all locations on the color spectrum. She spoke of attending as a child a ceremony at the Kingston Academy and of arriving late at Kingston High School and being rushed to class by Kate Walton for whom the field house is named. She spoke of being appalled at Jim Crow Laws in the south when visiting her father’s family. For those who took the time to know her she was a knowledgeable and well-read world traveler. In the end, she became an urban saint, a hermit in the midst of the city, praying constantly.
And Betty would admit to having the humor of a rapscallion. Upon bidding her goodbye, a guest could teasingly say, “Now, be good.” To which she would reply, “Now don’t you threaten me!” But her last words were always, “God bless you.”

I visited Betty once a week for over ten years. We laughed, prayed, spoke of the local news, shared memories and stories, spoke of our troubles and consoled each other. Betty generously introduced me to the Black, African American, sensibility. Her personal history was a revelation and inspiration to faith, perseverance, love of family and personal sacrifice. She taught me such expressions as "The blacker the berry the sweeter the juice" and "What's bred in the bone cannot be beaten out of the flesh." To know her was a privilege, an unforgettable privilege. 


Colleen said...

Thank you for sharing Sister Hildegard. Beautiful history of a saint in our midst.

Anonymous said...

I remember Betty when she worked at London's. Always smiling and pleasant. What a beautiful bio and what a humble and caring woman. A saint for sure. said...

I'm happy to have found your blog and the story of this unique woman. We're all called to create a life. It is a journey we all must take. It's made all the more sweet when we have to fight/work for it. Being here is a gift. Thank you for introducing me to a woman I may never have known. Rest in power Black Betty. said...

I'm happy to have found your blog and the story of this unique woman. We're all called to create a life. It is a journey we all just take. It's made all the more sweet when we have to work/fight for it. Being here is a gift. Thank you for introducing me to a woman I may never have known. Rest in power Black Betty.