|Sister Marianne Poole, SBS, helps fourth graders with their lessons at Smithson Craighead Academy. She belongs to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the order founded by St. Katharine Drexel, who also founded St. Vincent de Paul Church and School in Nashville. Sister Sandra Smithson, SSSF, attended St. Vincent as a child and recruited Sister Marianne to teach at Smithson Craighead, the public charter school that she founded in Nashville. Photos by Theresa Laurence
When Sister Sandra Smithson, SSSF, blew out the candles on her 90th birthday cake March 3, she was not only celebrating her birthday, but also the feast day of St. Katharine Drexel, the saint who “started a school just for me,” as she told the Smithson Craighead Academy students gathered to sing Happy Birthday to her.
Standing by, cutting and serving the cake was Sister Marianne Poole, SBS, a member of St. Katharine’s order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who now tutors at Smithson Craighead Academy, Middle Tennessee’s first public charter school, founded by Sister Sandra.
“The education I got from the Sisters is probably why I’m doing what I’m doing today,” said Sister Sandra, reflecting on her lifelong ties to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. In childhood and in old age, the Sisters have been integral to her. “Some of the greatest memories of my life have been shared with that order of nuns,” she said, including sitting on Mother Katharine’s lap when she once visited St. Vincent.
Young Sandra first encountered the Sisters in 1932, at the newly established St. Vincent de Paul School, located just around the corner from the Smithson family home in North Nashville. She attended Mother Katharine’s schools from the time she was in first grade until she graduated from college, first at St. Vincent, then Immaculate Mother Academy, then Xavier University in New Orleans, the only historically black Catholic college in the country. “They gave me an excellent education,” Sister Sandra said of the Blessed Sacrament sisters.
All these years later, Mother Katharine’s sisters are still impacting her. Several years ago, Sister Sandra recruited three Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to serve in her schools, Smithson Craighead Academy elementary school and Smithson Craighead Middle School. Two of the Sisters left when the middle school closed in 2013, but Sister Marianne remained in Nashville, continuing her presence at Smithson Craighead Academy. “It’s very wonderful to have her here,” Sister Sandra said. “We could use a few more like her.”
A shadow lifted
Having Sister Marianne in Nashville is “kind of like Katharine Drexel saying, ‘Sorry we didn’t take you in, so we’re sending one of our sisters to you,’” Sister Sandra said.
When Sister Sandra was exploring her vocation in the late 1940s, reaching out to women’s religious communities across the country, she was rejected time and again because of her race, even by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, whose entire purpose was to serve minority children and families.
The rejection stung, but she insists “it’s not a shadow on them, it’s the way things were in all the Church.” That’s not to excuse the former segregationist policies of the institutional Church, but to point out the context of the times, she said. “There were very many complicating factors” why most religious orders were segregated at that time, including laws in the South against black and white women co-habitating.
|The Smithson Craighead Academy community helped Sister Sandra Smithson, SSSF, celebrate her 90th birthday on March 3 at the charter school that she founded. Sister Sandra’s birthday is also the feast day of St. Katharine Drexel, one of her heroes, who founded the schools she attended, including St. Vincent de Paul in Nashville.
The order Sister Sandra ultimately joined, the School Sisters of St. Francis, was one of the few religious orders in the country open to integration at that time, and the first to accept her inquiry about joining their community.
A shared mission
“Living and working with Sister Sandra today is the perfect situation,” said Sister Marianne. “The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament were founded to teach African American and Indian children, and because of the population at this school it was a really good fit,” she said. Smithson Craighead, a free, public charter school located in Madison, serves primarily African American and Hispanic children from low-income families.
Sister Marianne has been an educator for 45 years, but this is her first time teaching in a public, non-Catholic school. It’s a different experience serving families who do not pay tuition, many of whom are not familiar with nuns or the Catholic Church, and who come from many different neighborhoods. “With a parish school, you have a built in community,” she said. With families from varied backgrounds and pockets of the city attending Smithson Craighead, “we really have to work hard at building community.”
Sister Marianne previously served as principal of St. Charles Borromeo School in Harlem, an inner-city school located near a public housing project. She also taught in schools in Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Cleveland, Santa Fe, and Philadelphia, her hometown, and the hometown of Mother Katharine Drexel.
Legacy of Mother Katharine
Both Sister Marianne and Sister Sandra are disappointed that Mother Katharine’s story is not more widely known. “If you mention Mother Teresa, everybody knows her, but if you mention Mother Katharine, most people just say ‘who?’” said Sister Sandra.
The daughter of a wealthy banker, Katharine used her inherited fortune to start an order of nuns with a charism to serve black and Native American children. She was met with fierce resistance in many areas where she started schools, including Nashville.
She first came to the city in 1905 at the behest of Nashville Bishop Thomas Byrne, just weeks after the Nashville City Council had debated a resolution to end secondary education for blacks. Mother Katharine had to use a third party to purchase the property for her new school. Even then, the seller learned that his former property would be used for a school to educate black children, and tried to rescind the sale. Mother Katharine and Bishop Byrne refused, and went forward with their plan to open Holy Family elementary school and Immaculate Mother Academy on one campus.
Those schools, which operated until 1954, educated black children from all backgrounds during Nashville’s pre-integration days, and produced many converts to the Catholic faith. Mother Katharine was insistent that her schools be open to all. She “was all about the person, not the stuff. She used her money to share,” Sister Marianne said. She’s a saint that Americans today should know more about, a powerful antidote to a consumerist culture, she said. “We need to do a better job of telling her story,” she said.
Searching for the lost
“Mother Katharine’s whole idea of education was empowerment,” said Sister Marianne. As a Foster Grandparent with FiftyForward, Sister Marianne is present in one of the fourth grade classrooms every day, offering guidance whenever needed, pushing the children to do their best.
In the evenings, back at the suburban home “convent” she shares with Sister Sandra, Sister Mary Acerbi, SSSF, and Joan Anderson, a third order Franciscan and community volunteer, Sister Marianne can often be found sitting across from Sister Sandra with a Scrabble board between them. “Do I win all the time?” Sister Marianne asks. “No,” she quickly responds with a laugh.
“For 90, she’s wonderful, so alert and always thinking of how she can get more things going,” she said of Sister Sandra.
One goal Sister Sandra has is to raise private funds so she can reinstate the bible study and religious education component in her Project Reflect after-school programs, which are currently funded through government grants that prohibit religious programming.
It frustrates Sister Sandra to no end that all religious education and prayer has been scrubbed from public schools, but she remains strongly committed to her ministry of reaching children on the margins in the public school system.
Catholic education today is mostly out of reach of the poor, who need it the most, said Sister Sandra. “If we truly want to evangelize, we have to penetrate the public school system. We have to get out of our comfort zone and leave the 99 being saved and go in search of the lost.”