By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

Sister Sandra Smithson, a School Sister of St. Francis and respected educator who founded the first charter school in Tennessee, accepts very few awards. One she didn’t pass up was the annual Peace and Justice Award presented to her by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in early March following the St. Katharine Drexel feast day Mass celebrated at their Bensalem motherhouse.

“Everything I needed to know I learned from the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament,” she declared.

She was taught by Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in grade school through college, and one of her favorite memories is, as a very little girl, being hugged by St. Katharine Drexel herself. {{more}}

That was in 1932 when she was 6 and a first-grader in just-opened St. Vincent de Paul School in Nashville. It was near Christmas when Mother Katharine visited her newest foundation and the children, all of whom were in grades one or two, presented their Christmas pageant.

Sandra, who was a bit precocious, recited “‘Twas the Night before Christmas” in its entirety.

“Mother Katharine was thrilled, and that’s when I got my big hug,” she said.

This was one of Mother Katharine’s last visits to her missions. In 1935 she became seriously ill and for the next two decades until her 1955 death she was mostly an invalid at the Bensalem motherhouse.

Like many African-Americans, Sister Smithson’s parents, John Lee and Lou Ora Smithson, were converts to Catholicism. She was the sixth child in a family that would eventually grow to 10 children. Before St. Vincent’s opened as a chapel and the school in a converted mansion, the Blessed Sacrament Sisters would visit the family home to catechize the children.

When the new school opened the older children opted to stay at their public school, but little Sandra wanted to attend. With her mother’s permission she went to the school and asked if she could. The sisters told her yes, adding there was a monthly fee of 25 cents, but she could get a scholarship.

This was during the heart of the Great Depression and the sisters knew the family was poor. Her father made $12 a week as a janitor and her mother earned $4 a week as a domestic. It wasn’t much money, even in that pre-inflation era.

When Sandra went home and told her mother about the scholarship, she said, “You haven’t done anything to earn a scholarship. Go back and ask them to let you work for it.”

“My parents were adamant about charity,” Sister Smithson said. “They believe you should earn whatever you got.”

The sisters gave Sandra the task of cleaning the chalkboard and straightening up the room at the end of class.

“While I was working I could hear the sisters chanting in their office downstairs in the chapel and the whole scene affected me very deeply,” said Sister Smithson, who believes this was the first seed for her own religious vocation.

She continued at St. Vincent through grade five then transferred to another Blessed Sacrament School, Immaculate Mother. It was five miles away and Sandra walked both ways every day for the next seven years until she completed high school.

An excellent student, she was awarded a full tuition, room and board scholarship to what was then Xavier College, now University, in New Orleans, run by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament as the only black Catholic college in America.

She had to wait a year while she worked to earn her train fare and money for incidental expenses before entering Xavier. After earning her bachelor’s degree in philosophy she returned to Nashville where she worked briefly on air at the city’s first black radio station, and through a scholarship began work on a master’s degree in English Literature at Fisk University.

During this early adult age, Sister Smithson underwent a crisis in faith. She discovered Catholics, both institutionally and inspanidually, were every bit as bigoted as other Americans. She found it humiliating to go to a church for Mass and be told she must sit in the balcony, or to enter a confession and be told by the priest he did not hear black confessions.

The only thing that centered her in her faith was the love she had received from the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and their love for the Blessed Sacrament which remains with her to this day.

When she decided to enter religious life, her first preference would have been the Blessed Sacrament Sisters. But they did not accept African-American candidates in their early history, primarily because under the laws and prejudices of the day they would not be able to share a convent with white sisters in most of the South. But also because the sisters did not want to take potential vocations away from the existing African-American communities that were struggling for survival.

After many applications to congregations, in 1953 she was accepted by the Milwaukee-based School Sisters of St. Francis.

Following formation her first assignment was as a high school English teacher at a school where, by coincidence, Sister Patricia Suchalski, the current president of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, was a student.

While she never taught her, Sister Smithson is thrilled; “I always wanted one of my students to become a Sister of the Blessed Sacrament,” she said.

In the late 1950s she volunteered for the missions and was sent to Costa Rica where, over 12 years, she pioneered in improving education opportunities for the poor.

After further teaching assignments in the U.S. in the mid-1980s with the permission of her congregation she returned to Nashville to care for her aged mother while teaching and in ministry at St. Vincent’s.

What she discovered was more and more families could not afford Catholic schools, and the mostly African-American children in her area were not achieving grade level in the public schools.

She initially began a summer school program for the children, which was somewhat effective but too brief. Next she raised sufficient funds to begin an after-school program. She also recruited her older sister, Mary Craighead (now deceased), a retired elementary school teacher, to assist, especially by training new teachers in effective classroom teaching methods.

The after-school program was an improvement, but what Sister Smithson knew was really needed was a full-day school. Publicly funded charter schools were beginning to pop up around the country, “Why not in Tennessee?” she reasoned. She lobbied hard to make it a reality but not everyone was in agreement.

“Over my dead body,” a public school union official told her.

“I hope you are not planning to live a long life,” Sister Smithson replied.

The Smithson Craighead Academy was born in 2003 as a charter school, initially only for children who had failed in the public schools. It succeeded well beyond expectations and now has 500 children in two locations with a number of the students in Catholic PREP programs. But most important, all students are instilled with Christian values, Sister Smithson said.

That’s why the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament gave her the Peace and Justice Award.

But she has another claim on them. “My birthday is Nov. 26, the same as St. Katharine Drexel’s,” she said.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.