Q & A with Sr. Sandra Smithson on being both black and Catholic in the South
Ninety-year-old Sr. Sandra Smithson entered religious life in 1953. Now, more than six decades later, the School Sister of St. Francis reflects on the ways the Catholic church has changed on issues of race and what work it still needs to do.
GSR: You grew up in the segregated South, which was certainly not known for its Catholicism. Did you grow up Catholic?
Smithson: My family was Catholic. My mother had been Methodist, but when she married my dad, she converted to Catholicism because he was Catholic. He helped to build the first black Catholic church in the city of Nashville — Holy Family Church in south Nashville. But when they bought a home here, they bought it in north Nashville. We didn't have a car, so we really didn't have a church to go to.
So my dad became the catechist, the priest, the confessor — he was everything for us as we were growing up. Did the baptisms of the kids. We were later baptized again; we went through the process in the church as we got older. But coming out in the world, he made sure we were baptized. He did that himself. So I kind of grew up in what I would like to say a family of faith. Very, very, very much so.
Did you ever feel doubly ostracized for being both black and Catholic in the South?
Actually, no, because the segregation was so final from a racial point of view that it didn't matter that they didn't like me if I were Catholic [laughs]. The real issue of rejection that blacks felt and experienced in the South was that racial segregation thing. It kept them from realizing their potential as human beings.
And I feel that way too now about the church with respect to women. I think the church has come a long way in this whole racial thing, but the gender thing is just about where it was. It has not come a long way. I was very disappointed in [Pope] Francis' statement recently: never, never, never, never, never women priests. That is the most naive repudiation of the Redemption that I think I've heard.
What happened at the time of the Eucharist was, Jesus took natural substance — bread and wine — and he transformed it into his body and blood. Mary was the first person to be given the power by God to change natural substance into the body and blood of Christ. That substance was her own flesh and blood and bones, and you have the pope saying never, never, never? In other words, will the church ever accept the Incarnation and everything that flows from it?
Mary can claim, 'My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit finds its joy in God my savior because he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.' But the church says, 'Oh, no. Women can't preach.' Interesting.
The Resurrection being the most fundamental dogma of the church. Who was the first person to preach the Resurrection? Mary Magdalene. She was sent by Jesus himself to the apostles and told, 'Go and tell them. I've risen. They don't get it. They're up there hiding, scared.' So the most significant message resulting in our salvation is that Christ is risen, and the first person to preach it is a woman, and the woman is commissioned by Christ to do it, and we say women can't preach in the church?
It seems to me that we are repudiating all of the grace and the Redemption. And it seems to me that until we can embrace and struggle to fulfill that prayer of Jesus that they all may be one, until and unless we do that, we are repudiating the work of the Redemption.
When did you realize you were being called to religious life?
I wasn't exactly crazy about becoming a nun. I just felt called. I always had this haunting presence of Christ as a part of my growing up. At my school, they had a little chapel, and I would always go visit that little chapel. It would just be Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and myself. And I thought it was great.
As I began to grow a little older, I kind of got the idea that I didn't really want to be taken for granted, so I thought I should give [Jesus] a little bit of a challenge and a little shock. So instead of stopping by the little chapel, I decided I would go all the way to the end of the block, and then I could see that he would be very unhappy that I didn't stop in to visit with him. And then I'd run back and say, 'Surprise!' [laughs] That's kind of ridiculous, but that's the way kids are.
In high school and college, I would go out on a date, and if the guy even as much reached over and took my hand, it was almost like Christ materialized between us. I know he didn't, but right away, I had to take my hand away. I grew up with an awareness that he was always beside me, always with me. And then I had the notion that [Jesus] really wanted me to enter religious life.
But you didn't enter one of the black communities. Why not?
I'd come to realize that — from my perspective — the church had missed the boat [on race]. They caved in to segregation in the South, and they probably had to to survive. But I kept being haunted by that final prayer of Christ, which was, 'Father, I pray that they all may be one as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also may be one in us so that the world will believe that you have sent me.'
We talk about three persons in one God because there's only one divine nature. So what you have is one nature, individualized in a plurality of persons, and that makes them one because it is the one nature. If we are made in his image, then this whole notion of multiple races can't be. There's only one human race, one human nature. And, like God, it is individualized in a plurality of persons. And that's what I came to as a kind of basic theology that motivated me.
I knew that if I entered the Holy Family Sisters or the Franciscans in New York or the Oblates in Baltimore, I was remaining in a pre-Christian theology. And I didn't want to do that. With the coming of Christ, we became one in him in his physical body. And we were one already in nature, but sin had made us think of ourselves as different. And I came to realize that all of this difference that we fight about, that we reject people over, is a marvelous manifestation of the infinite creativity of God.
Sr. Sandra Smithson speaks during the Nashville stop of NETWORK's Nuns of the Bus tour in 2015.
How easy was it to find a congregation that accepted black women?
I searched for several years. The Blessed Sacrament Sisters did not take me in, though I had been in their schools all my life. Then I thought, 'Well, I'll try the Daughters of St. Paul,' because I was working at a radio program — a daily program called 'A Woman Speaks' — and the ministry of the Daughters of St. Paul was precisely that. But they also said no.
In fact, I went to the diocese office and I got a directory of sisterhoods in the United States, and I just started writing them. The answers were always coming back no, no, no. I finally got to the point where instead of sending a whole persona, I just started asking the question up front: Do you take blacks or don't you? And the answer would be no, and it would save me a lot of writing.
So finally, I decided that I needed to give up this search. I returned the book, and I was sitting in my living room, talking to one of my younger sisters, and I had a vision of a stream of all of these nuns that I had written. They were in single file, and they walked right in front of me. And each one, as they passed, turned and looked at me and went on. Finally, one came, turned and looked at me, stepped out of the line and put her hand on my shoulder, then went on.
And my reaction was, 'See? You're flipping out. You better leave this stuff alone.' But nevertheless, I thought I'd better go back and get that book. The face was etched in my brain, and so was the habit. Two days later, I got a letter from the School Sisters of St. Francis' mother general in Milwaukee. And it was a very short letter, and it said, 'Of course we accept Negros' — that was the word used at the time — 'we accept whoever God sends.'
I answered that I would come. That was in March 1953. In September, I quit my job at the radio station, and I emptied out my bank account. I gave away everything I owned except the clothes I wore on my back, and I took a train and went to Milwaukee. Well, I hadn't written to them since they had written to me, so they weren't prepared. But they gave me the postulant's outfit. They didn't have any shoes that fit me, so I was in my white high-heeled pumps and black postulant's robe and veil, walking around.
When I went to the mother general's office, I was immediately struck by the portraits of three women behind her desk on the wall. They were wearing the habit that I had seen in that stream of nuns in my living room. And so I said to her, 'Who are those women?'
She said, 'Those are our foundresses.'
I said, 'They're not dressed like you.'
She said, 'We gave up that habit. It was too involved. We've changed habits.'
I said, 'I'm very interested in that third one,' because now I had the habit, and there was the face.
And she said, 'That's Mother Stanislaus. It's interesting that you should zero in on her because she was the first one in the community to break down the barrier of separation. And she had to fight the bishop. In fact, she almost was put out of the community. She had to fight the bishop to be able to allow blacks to come in and become part of the community. But she stood her ground, and there she is.'
So I knew I had come home to wherever God was sending me.
Were you expecting to face racism within your community? Had you faced racial discrimination from other Catholics before?
There was a time when I had wanted to leave the church, to be honest with you. And the reason I had been unable to was where else could I find the Blessed Sacrament? If I could have, I would have left. But that Eucharist was everything to me.
I had had the rejection of religious communities. I went to the Eucharist Caris House at Xavier in New Orleans and was escorted out by the police department and the priest. One time, I was traveling through Mississippi, and I wanted to go to confession before I went to Mass the next morning. I stopped by the parish house and asked when confessions would be, and the priest said, 'I don't hear the confessions of colored people.' There were all these instances of rejection.
When I had first told my father I thought I had a religious vocation, he said, 'Well, I want you to know that it will not be easy. But don't think that means you don't belong. Jesus Christ came unto his own, and even his own did not receive him. So don't expect people who think you don't belong to embrace you with open arms.' So that prepared me for accepting whatever would come if I ever got into a religious community.
You've stayed for 63 years, so I guess it's safe to say it worked out for you.
Initially, I thought that once I decided to enter, I would get a reprieve like Abraham did [when he was asked to sacrifice Isaac]. I thought, 'I'll just show God I'll really do this for him, and then he'll save me at last minute before I make these vows.' Well, he didn't save me [laughs].
The night before my first vows, I went up on the roof of the convent, and I was able to say, 'Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.' And from that day, I never looked back. It has been a tremendous journey and a tremendous experience that I would not in any way, shape or form or fashion ever want to have lost.