At age 91, the matriarch of Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Darby carries the honorific title “Mother Bailey” — along with a sharp memory for many experiences yesteryear and today for Black Catholics in America.
“When my mother was a girl, she named her doll, ‘Alma.’ So when I was born in Middleboro, Kentucky, in 1925, I was named after her doll! I was a twin, and one of seven children. My entire family was very active in our Baptist Church. It was in California that ‘I turned around,’” said Alma Elizabeth Bailey of her journey toward the Catholic Church.
The daughter of parents who were college graduates, Alma was accepted in 1943 into the United States Cadet Nursing Corps. This program was conducted at Tuskegee University, Alabama, home of the celebrated African American airmen of World War II, with whom she shares an association.
The war ended before her graduation but she became trained in both practical and psychiatric nursing.
From 1943 until retirement in 1987, Mother Bailey worked in the nursing profession in Kentucky and Alabama. Locally, she worked in the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, St. Vincent Home for Children, and Lankenau Hospital.
“In 1949, I found a medal of the Sacred Heart and Blessed Mother among ashes in a back yard incinerator. I spent hours polishing ‘whatever it was’ and I am still wearing this medal. I then took a correspondence course to become a Catholic.
“When I completed the course, the priest in Middleboro would not receive me into the church. I was angry! He told me that by becoming a Catholic, I would be estranged from many of my family and friends. He was right! Even today, I am the only Catholic in my family.
“Later, I was baptized in St. Julian Church, Middleboro. When I came to Philadelphia, I was confirmed in St. Francis de Sales Church. To this day I wear a gold crucifix given to me when I was confirmed. “
Mother Bailey has been a parishioner at Blessed Virgin Mary Parish since 1981. To acknowledge her major contributions to parish life, Father Joseph Corley, the parish’s pastor, provided her with a special parking place. The sign reads: “Mother Bailey Reserved Parking.”
Parishioners know not to park in this space. Offenders can be challenged by Mother Bailey with “Can’t you read?”
She explained: “Some of the parishioners whom I was bringing to church had difficulty walking. This parking place is convenient for them. It was Father Corley who had the sign installed. He also decided that I should be called ‘Mother.’”
The pastor noted that “a title of honor with Baptist congregations is ‘Mother.’ Mother Bailey reminds me of the Mother Superiors I remember from my school days. She is also a ‘superior person.’”
As a parishioner — and especially in her retirement — Mother Bailey has a high profile. She assists with parish food and nursing programs. She serves as extraordinary minister of the Eucharist and a member of the parish pastoral council.
According to Father Corley, “Mother Bailey is the most popular lector in the parish” – to which she responded, “It was about time that somebody asked me!”
She was also active on the transition team when St. Louis Parish, Yeadon, became a worship site attached to B.V.M. Parish in Darby. Her talent as a fund raiser is likewise notable.
“When Father Corley was trying to clear parish debt of $90,000, he put a notice in the parish bulletin asking for help,” Mother Bailey said. “I contacted four Protestant friends. Each gave $500. We cleared the debt!”
Apart from parish life, Mother Bailey belongs to the Third Order of Dominican Sisters, is a member of the Tuskegee Airmen’s Association, and involved with the Nile Swim Club in Yeadon. “This club was founded in 1956 when Blacks were not permitted in white swim clubs,” she recalls.
In 2015, Father Corley installed a sculpture of “Mary, Queen of Africa” in the church. The statue is three and a half feet tall and sculpted by a priest, Father Leonard Carrieri, a Missionary of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
“I am glad that our pastor placed a Black monument in my church,” Mother Bailey said. “More and more African Blacks are attending. They come from Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Congo and Ghana. They are happy to see a statue that they can connect with.
“They say, ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary looks just like us! The Blessed Virgin Mary looks just like me! She is an African woman!’”
Alma Elizabeth also has high praise for Father Corley: “He is one priest carrying two churches on his back. This is heavy responsibility. In addition, many of our African parishioners come here with nothing. He helps them with food, clothing and finding apartments. He enrolls their children in our parish school.”
Reflecting on her many years as a Catholic, Mother Bailey recalls that “the Catholic Church has always been available and helpful to Blacks.”
Even in the South, the first integration of churches was done by Catholics.
“It was a Black lady — Mary Burton, a member of St. Julian Parish in Kentucky — who was my godmother,” said Mother Bailey.
Father Corley calls her “an authentic Catholic woman. She is involved, honest and realistic. She doesn’t dance around!” he said.