Franciscan Sister Sandra Olivia Smithson, an educator, an administrator, an author and a visionary, was remembered for her love of Christ and her dedication to improving the lives of the poor and disenfranchised through education.
“She wanted to enable young minds to be successful in this world,” Father Pat Kibby, who celebrated Sister Sandra’s funeral Mass on Monday, May 23, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation, said in his homily.
“She learned that the poor and disenfranchised sitting in classrooms do not see the world as the rest of us see it, do not think as the rest of us think, do not have the experience of life that many of us have. And, therefore, the education system has to adjust in order to help that person to learn,” Father Kibby said. “You can’t change a child’s life without changing the system that child is in.”
Sister Sandra, an advocate for improved education opportunities for children from low-income families and the founder of Nashville’s first charter school, died on Friday, May 13, 2022. She was 96.
Interment followed the funeral Mass at Hills of Calvary Memorial Park on Ashland City Highway in Nashville.
Sister Sandra was born on March 3, 1926, in Nashville, the sixth of 10 children born to the late John Lee and Lou Ora Berry Smithson.
Her parents “believed profoundly that the portal to real and lasting freedom was education,” Ora Yvonne Chowbay, Ph.D., Sister Sandra’s niece, said in her eulogy. “They also believed unequivocally in their Catholic faith, self-reliance, and service to others. They raised their children to understand that to whom much is given, much is required.
“These were the lessons that shaped and formed the trajectory of Sister Sandra’s life,” she said.
Sister Sandra grew up in North Nashville around the corner from St. Vincent de Paul Church and School on Heiman Street, which was founded by St. Katharine Drexel, an heiress who used her fortune to establish Catholic schools to educate African-American and American Indian children. The schools were staffed by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, a religious order founded by St. Katharine.
When St. Vincent de Paul School opened in 1932, “I was the first kid who ever registered there,” Sister Sandra said for an article in the Tennessee Register.
“The education I got from the Sisters is probably why I’m doing what I’m doing today,” Sister Sandra told the Register. “Some of the greatest memories of my life have been shared with that order of nuns,” including sitting on St. Katharine’s lap when she once visited St. Vincent.
Sister Sandra attended schools established by St. Katharine and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament from first grade through college, including, St. Vincent, Immaculate Mother Academy in Nashville, and Xavier University in New Orleans, the only historically Black Catholic college in the country.
“It was a wonderful, wonderful experience with those sisters,” Sister Sandra told the Tennessee Register in 2012. “The Church hasn’t had any ministry with the Black community that comes anywhere near what Katharine Drexel did with those schools.”
After graduating with honors from Xavier University, Sister Sandra was granted a teaching fellowship at Fisk University to work toward a master’s degree in literature. She was recruited to be the first woman to host a talk show on Nashville’s first African-American radio station, WSOK. The show was called “A Woman Speaks” and featured local, national, and world issues in politics, religion, and general social commentary. Due to listener interest, it grew from a 15-minute fill-in spot to a one-hour feature show that won first place in the Hooper ratings, the forerunner of the Gallop Poll and the Neilson Ratings.
“Sandra had said even as a young child she felt a deep calling to religious life,” Chowbay said. “Clearly, Sandra had all the elements for success in the secular life, … (but) the call to religious life persisted.”
When Sister Sandra was discerning a religious vocation in the late 1940s and early 1950s, she was rejected by women’s religious communities across the country time and time again because of her race. The order Sister Sandra ultimately joined, the School Sisters of St. Francis of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 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.
She joined the School Sisters of St. Francis in 1954, and during her 67 years of religious life worked in missions in the United States and Central and South America. In Costa Rica in the early 1960s, as principal of a private school, she initiated a pilot educational project for poor children in the surrounding barrio that led to public school reform for the entire country. That era has been referred to as “the Golden Age of Sister Maria Crucis,” her religious name at the time.
Sister Sandra returned to her hometown of Nashville in the late 1980s to help care for her ailing mother. She was disturbed when she looked around her neighborhood in North Nashville and saw too many children out playing when they should have been in school, her nephew Charles Grant said in his reflections about his aunt at the end of the funeral.
Upon further investigation, she found the “attendance rates of the local schools were far too low, and the failure rates were far too high,” Grant said.
That prompted her, with her sister Mary Smithson Craighead, a renowned educator in her own right, in 1992 to found Project Reflect, whose mission is “transforming communities through education and policy reform.” The organization offered enrichment programs for children of low-income families focusing on reading literacy.
“This was the essence of her work … to make sure poor children get the educational opportunities that they deserve,” Grant said.
“As we celebrate the life of this remarkable person, let us not forget her work, her work for the impoverished,” he urged the people gathered for Sister Sandra’s funeral.
Sister Sandra, who served as executive director of Project Reflect from 1992 through 2014, was an advocate for the first charter school legislation in Tennessee, which passed in 2002. The next year, Project Reflect opened Middle Tennessee’s first charter school, Smithson Craighead Academy elementary school. The school is still operating today, serving primarily African-American and Latino children from low-income families.
“She and her sister, Mary Craighead, were kind of like Nashville’s version of Mother Teresa in how they helped rescue disadvantaged inner-city kids and lovingly minister to them academically so that the kids had a chance to have a better life,” said Deacon Mark Faulkner, who is Chair of the Project Reflect Corporate Members and 30-year volunteer for the organization. “They figured out the kids were failing school not because they were unintelligent, they just needed to be taught differently.”
The sisters used the reading education method developed by Mrs. Craighead to give students a firm academic foundation, Deacon Faulkner said.
“And once the kids experienced success, they took off academically,” he added. “And most ended up being A and B students.”
After her retirement as executive director of Project Reflect, Sister Sandra continued to work toward excellence in public education for grades K-12 in Tennessee, with a focus on literacy in grades K-4. She was a lifetime board member of Project Reflect. Additionally, she worked with the Metro Nashville Public Schools’ board and Tennessee State University administrators to support and improve public schools.
In the final months of her life, Chowbay said, “Sister Sandra was trying to figure out a way to get ethical training into public schools. Not from any religious congregation, just moral values, which are an integral part of every decision.
“She believed the spiritual development of children is absolutely essential to their future and the future of communities across the country,” Chowbay said.
In recent years, Sister Sandra published several books, many available on Amazon.com. The proceeds from the sales of two of her books, a reflective nonfiction book, “From Out of the Shadows: Doubt in the Service of Faith and Other Paradoxes,” and a fictional allegory story for young readers, “Alegro and the Very Imperfect Poodle,” benefit the St. Katharine Drexel Memorial Scholarship Fund at Father Ryan High School for academically promising African-American students from low-income families. The books are available at St. Mary’s Bookstore in Nashville and at the Father Ryan Alumni Office.
“She and her sister both had the ability to relate to children … on their level,” said Deacon Bill Hill, who established the St. Katharine Drexel Scholarship. “Kids are real, and they could see the concern they had.
“She was a visionary,” Deacon Hill added, “and she truly, truly loved kids.”
Irene Boyd was a friend of Sister Sandra and is a Corporate Member of the Project Reflect Board of Directors.
“She was just a wonderful person to have a conversation with,” Boyd said. “She had such a love of Christ. … I feel blessed to have known her.”
“She was one of the most profoundly spiritual people that I’ve ever met,” said Deacon Faulkner. “She had a relationship with our Lord that was truly celestial and metaphysical and trusting. She believed she didn’t have to worry about stuff, because if it was his will, it would get done. …
“Her true, kind and loving embrace of all of humanity was very aligned with the gospel and how the Lord loved and embraced everyone,” he added. “She saw every single life as sacred and worth saving.”
Sister Mary Acerbi, a School Sister of St. Francis, was a friend and colleague of Sister Sandra’s for 25 years.
Looking for a change of ministry, she came to Nashville in 1997 at Sister Sandra’s invitation to work with her at Project Reflect to see if she would like it. “After the first week, I knew this is where I was going to be.”
Sister Mary was with Sister Sandra, praying the Rosary, when she died. When they completed the decade for the Fifth Sorrowful Mystery – the Crucifixion and Death of Jesus, “she squeezed my hand hard and that was it,” Sister Mary said.
“She was a lady who loved everyone,” Sister Mary added.
“Aunt Sandra had a fire and a real love for the poor,” her nephew Michael Grant said in a reflection at the end of the funeral, “and that’s what she wants us to have.”
Sister Sandra was preceded in death by her parents and siblings John Lee Smithson, Jr. (Portia), Mary Elizabeth Craighead (Robert), Dorcus Lynn Alley (Ivory), Verleon H. Grant (Roscoe), Hewrie Esther Haswell (James), Launa Craighead (Theodore), Clarence H. Smithson (Abbie), and Lael Agnes Fields (Charles).
Survivors include her brother, Oliver Moore “Tony” Smithson (Frankie/deceased); a host of nieces, nephews, cousins, sisters and brothers of the faith, colleagues and friends, including, Sister Mary Acerbi, Sister Arleen Welding, Sister Marianne Poole, Joan Anderson, Bishop Fernand J. Cheri III., Joan McGranaghan, Mary Ann Dunn, LeKita Stevenson, Deacon Mark Faulkner, Deacon Jim Holzemer, godson Conner Mulloy, Dianne Mulloy, Irene Boyd, Jean Verber, Patricia Gunn, Rebecca Horton, Paul Ney and Father Pat Kibby.
Memorial contributions can be made to the St. Katharine Drexel Memorial Scholarship Fund at Father Ryan High School, https://www.fatherryan.org, 615-383-4200.
Funeral arrangements were under the direction of Lewis & Wright Funeral Directors in Nashville.