Black Belts and Blessings

A classic 1994 New York Times article on nuns in East Harlem learning martial arts as they perform charity in the community:

Sister Marie Chantal could be the scariest dream imaginable for legions of smirking, snickering Catholic schoolboys: a nun adept in judo and tae kwon do.

They can relax.

The martial arts are just a diversion for the smiling, shy 33-year-old member of the Fraternite Notre Dame, a French religious order dedicated to serving the poor. She and five other sisters run a cramped soup kitchen in East Harlem that feeds 300 people daily as part of their ministry to the hungry, the homeless and the sick.

Dressed in traditional habits of black and gray, they live and walk among some of the toughest, most drug-filled blocks of the city, so perhaps it is just as well that Sister Marie Chantal and the others know a bit about self-defense. But they don’t see themselves in any special danger. ‘It’s Just a Sport’

“The fact we know tae kwon do does not change anything,” said Mother Marie Martha, the group’s mother superior. “It’s just a sport.”

The order was founded 20 years ago in France by Bishop Jean-Marie Roget Kozik, and considers itself Roman Catholic but independent of the Vatican. There are many young members among the 60 nuns and 30 priests and brothers assigned to missions in France, Cameroon, Haiti and New York. Members of the order said they were encouraged to keep up with outside pursuits like music, art or even martial arts, to be happy in their vocation.

The sisters arrived in New York three years ago with little more than plans for a soup kitchen that would serve the poorest of the poor. Mother Marie Martha said they were rebuffed by countless landlords who did not want dozens of the down and out cluttering their doorways.

One landlord eventually leased them a storefront for $1,000 a month in what had been a beauty parlor on First Avenue near East 117th Street. They opened the House of Mary Nazareth with a two-burner hot plate and a meager pantry stocked with food donated by hotels, groceries and restaurants. Sister Marie’s Black BeltXxx

Their martial arts training began soon after they arrived in the city, when they lived for a while on the West Side. Sister Marie Chantal, who had earned a black belt in judo before she entered the convent, said she had been eager to resume the sport and she found a tae kwon do master in, of all places, Hell’s Kitchen.

While Sister Marie Chantal is the most avid athlete of the group, Mother Marie Martha said the other nuns also learned basic self-defense moves because they had heard the neighborhood was dangerous. Yet they say they have had no problems in East Harlem, even considering that they now live near the soup kitchen, in a building steps away from a chaotic street-corner drug trade.

One recent morning, three nuns squeezed into the tiny kitchen to prepare the day’s meal of soup, pasta and salad while the hungry lined up.

“I’ve got good stuff!” Sister Marie Valerie declared to the group, some of whom had no doubt heard that line many times before when they wanted something a little stronger.

A grimy man wearing a button that read “I Love Everybody and You’re Next!” woozily took a cup of tea from a nun. He stirred it slowly before making the sign of the cross as he muttered fragments of long-forgotten prayers. No Value JudgmentsXxx

Gregory Robbs, a 51-year-old homeless man, squeezed past him, his stomach as full as his plastic bag holding bread for his afternoon snack.

“Some soup kitchens you don’t go to because they look down on you,” he said. “Here, they don’t make value judgments. You’re just a person in need. People down on the streets are appreciative of that.”

The sisters eat after they have fed those in line. Later in the day they prepare meals to hand out at night by the Port Authority bus station, while others bring food and company to people in the neighborhood who are suffering from AIDS.

“We give them the friendship they need,” said Mother Marie Martha. “We’re not afraid of their illness. We have lots of respect.”

But little money. That is why people like Dolores Baca, a Manhattan hotel manager, have been donating food and time.

“I have never seen something so sincere and real,” Ms. Baca said. “They do their work from the heart. Unfortunately, you cannot feed and clothe people from the heart.” Expanding the Mission

The nuns want to expand their mission here by acquiring a building to house a program for unwed mothers and their children. The ambitious order also has plans for an orphanage in Mongolia and a program for street children in Brazil. The nuns hope to raise money through a concert in May, when 40 members of the order will travel to New York for a performance of religious music.

Wherever they do their work, the sisters said, they do not proselytize, preferring their actions to speak for themselves. For them, their work in East Harlem is their biggest concern.

“We know the neighborhood is dangerous, but we don’t have any problems,” said Sister Marie Francesca.

Sister Marie Valerie agreed, echoing a sentiment familiar to many Americans in Paris. “The people are nicer than in France,” she said.


Join Sinergia and Public Health Solutions on our upcoming free webinar via Zoom on 10/12 from 12 PM-1:30 p.m. 

Event Name: Your Home & the Smoke-Free NYC Program

Presenting Organization: Public Health Solutions

Date: Thursday, 10/12

Time: 12-1:30 PM EST

RSVP via Zoom:

Questions/Accommodations: Contact Mariam Chardiwall via email at