Sister Mary Acerbi is a fountain of memories and laughs as she recalls the journey to her 60th anniversary as a School Sister of St. Francis, which she marked Aug. 3.
Celebrating the milestone has had its high points, such as when she joined other jubilarians of her order for a post-pandemic celebration in Milwaukee this past June. It’s had its heartbreak too with Sister Mary holding the hand of her beloved mentor, Sister Sandra Smithson, when she died while praying the rosary in mid-May.
“It was a blessing but it was hard, you know,” she said. “I’d been with her 25 years and she challenged the heck out of me. … She had me doing things I never believed I would ever do!”
Sister Mary came to Nashville from her native Wisconsin in 1997 after being recruited by Sister Sandra to work at Project Reflect, serving at-risk children from low-income families with education, nutrition and love. She was deep in the trenches for the launch of Smithson-Craighead Academy in Nashville in 2003, the Midstate’s first charter school that Sister Sandra opened with her sister Mary Craighead.
These days Sister Mary is perhaps best known as a high-energy servant-leader and healer at the school who offers sanctuary for students, as well as teachers, for everything from stomach aches to hunger pangs, and hurting hearts. She’s served an inner-city student body that began predominately African-American and climbed to 50-50 over the years with the growing Hispanic community.
“Some of these kids come from very bad families, tough, hard families,” she said. “They can’t learn until they’re loved.”
The seeds for this lesson were planted years earlier, in 1978. Sister Mary said she was deeply influenced by the children she served at St. Francis School for Exceptional Children in Freeport, Illinois.
“That was where I first learned to love,” she said.
One particular child was the spark. He had no palate, no hands and feet, “the cutest kid you ever wanted to know,” she said.
Feeding him was a challenge because what he ate came out of his nose. “No one wanted to feed the kid, it was like a circus,” Sister Mary said.
But he was beloved. Deformed by his birth mother’s drug addiction, he was adopted by a woman with eight other children who had the school help her raise him.
“We had to be everything for them, their hands, their feet, their heart,” Sister Mary said. The staff focused on teaching the children to learn to eat for themselves and dress themselves, and if they could so, it was “a miracle.”
Although physically between the ages of 4 and 18, the children were mentally six to eight month old babies, she said.
During those 12 years, she worked in food services, managing difficult dietary needs for the children. She also helped out in the classroom and felt a call in her heart to move in that direction.
Not long after, she met Sister Sandra, also a School Sister of St. Francis, who was in Milwaukee for a meeting at the religious community’s complex. Sister Mary was working food service for about 50 visiting sisters. “I just said to her one time, I’m looking for another change because I like children. … There’s something about children that keeps me alive,” Sister Mary recalled.
A few months later, Sister Sandra tracked her down, inviting her to come try out a week of Project Reflect’s upcoming summer program.
“The first week I was here I knew I liked it,” Sister Mary said. So, then I stayed.”
The handful of Sisters of St. Francis who were in Nashville lived in a couple of locations around town because of accommodation limits. Sister Mary said she lived at a residence in one of the housing projects for almost two years, with another sister and then later, an order associate, as a roommate. Their front window formed an ongoing theater of sorts for drug deals, vehicle break-ins and middle of the night car honking.
“That was a great experience I got of learning what these kids are all about,” Sister Mary said of the students at her school. “Sandra wanted me to really feel that because of working with these types of kids.”
Through the years, at Sister Sandra’s encouragement, she also worked on community relations and fundraising, expressing thanks for donations given and encouraging another round of giving. Reluctant at first, she once practiced her script on the ducks in a nearby pond before making her pitch to a room full of people. “I mean, she got me to know what to do and talk to people about money and stuff. Last year, I got $35,000 for the Pre-K.”
Sister Mary said she first encountered the idea of becoming a religious sister when her seventh grade teacher at St. James Catholic School in her hometown of Kenosha, suggested she had a vocation. She rejected it outright.
It came up again in high school when her homeroom teacher brought it up and invited the young Mary to visit the order’s motherhouse in Milwaukee, less than an hour away. “We went by train. … I was overwhelmed.”
“I was going back and forth about whether I should join or not,” she said. Another of her teachers, a priest, told her she wouldn’t last two weeks “because I was too wild,” she recalled, sharing a few funny stories to make her point. “I was 16, almost 17.”
“After my sophomore year, I did enter the community and then finished my high school in Milwaukee.”
That was 1962, a tumultuous period in the nation and in the world. The unfolding of the Second Vatican Council brought changes to religious orders such as the School Sisters of St. Francis, renewing their founding charism, and directing them to a more contemporary service of the Gospel.
“We were called the radical class,” she said with a laugh. Her class proposed its members make an ongoing commitment rather than take final vows, allowing them a fluidity to serve the community’s missions sort of like the Peace Corps. The idea was rejected, she said, and a good number of her classmates left. Many, however, did stay connected as Associates.
“Our community vision is different now,” Sister Mary wrote in a short bio. “Sisters were in abundance and schools, hospitals and missions like St. Francis flourished. … Now our emphasis is on the Gospel message of peace and justice.”
With the decline in religious vocations, the Associates are seen as a key part of the community’s future, she said.
For her own future, Sister Mary wants to stay right where she is, connected with the school and children she loves.
“I’m looking forward to being as much as I can for others and myself, to see who the individual is no matter who they are, what race they are, what age they are. I still want to be part of them, be able to help them out.”
“As long as I can, as long as God is willing to give me health here, I want to be here. Because this is what I see the real justice of the world is. These kids are our future, and if we don’t do something for them to help them how can we be part of them?”
Sister Sandra had wanted their St. Francis community to have a better idea of who Sister Mary is from her standpoint. She wrote a tribute in advance, noting she might not live long enough to see her sister’s jubilee.
“Sister Mary Acerbi’s life is far too hidden and needs to be brought to light. I don’t know of anyone who is a better expression of the teaching of Jesus: Let she who would be the first among you become the servant of all,” Sister Sandra wrote.
She also shared the story of a deeply troubled young boy who hated being at the school and created problems to the point that all the teachers gave up on him. Sister Sandra said she begged Sister Mary to take him in hand, which she did with morning walks and talks in nature and holding him near despite the angry fists that beat on her chest.
Gradually, she wrote, he moved to peace and calm. On the last day of school, he told Sister Mary he loved her and acknowledged he had given her a hard time. “But now I can fly like a bird!” he told her.
“That’s Sister Mary,” she wrote. “She gives her all – all of the time and no one in need is ever excluded from her gifting. She’ll find a way.”