Sister Sandra Smithson, a School Sister of St. Francis, was a young child growing up in Nashville when she met St. Katharine Drexel as one of the students at the then new St. Vincent de Paul School in North Nashville.
“I was the first kid who ever registered there,” Sister Sandra said.
St. Vincent was one of several schools in Nashville for African-American students founded by St. Katharine Drexel and the order she established, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
“She was a darling person,” Sister Sandra said of St. Katharine Drexel. “She has continued to inspire me since I first met her in first grade.”
That inspiration has spurred Sister Sandra to donate proceeds from the sales of two books she has written to the St. Katharine Drexel Scholarship Fund at Father Ryan High School to provide tuition assistance to African-American students at the school.
St. Katharine Drexel and her religious order were dedicated to providing an education to African-American and American Indian children. They opened 64 schools across the West and South, including the former Holy Family School, Immaculate Mother Academy, which was a high school, and St. Vincent in Nashville.
Deacon Bill Hill, who graduated from St. Vincent and Father Ryan, started the Drexel Scholarship Fund at his alma mater to honor St. Katharine Drexel’s legacy. It was his experience at the school St. Katharine Drexel founded that led him to become a Catholic, said Deacon Hill, who serves at both St. Vincent de Paul Church and Holy Family Church in Brentwood.
“That happened with a whole lot of folks,” he said. “I would say 90 percent of African-American Catholics in Nashville have a connection to her schools.”
Her impact extended beyond the Catholic community in Nashville and into the broader community, Deacon Hill said. “Many of the students at St. Vincent were non-Catholic.”
And many others “were like me and came from the housing projects and couldn’t afford a private school education,” Deacon Hill said.
Black Lives Matter has become a rallying cry in recent years, but St. Katharine Drexel put her money and her mission behind that goal more than 100 years ago. St. Katharine Drexel was an heiress who used her fortune to build her network of schools, Deacon Hill noted. “She gave millions of dollars to educate black children.”
Sister Sandra attended schools established by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament from first grade through college: St. Vincent, Immaculate Mother Academy, and then Xavier University in New Orleans.
“It was a wonderful community,” Sister Sandra said of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
She has adopted their mission to serve children at the margins and from low-income families as her own mission, establishing Project Reflect and the charter school Smithson-Craighead Academy to serve children in Nashville from low-income families.
Sister Sandra has offered the proceeds from the sale 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.”
The books are available at St. Mary’s Bookstore in Nashville and at the Father Ryan Alumni Office. People can also purchase the books by contacting Deacon Hill.
When Deacon Hill decided to establish the St. Katharine Drexel Scholarship Fund, he received help from fellow Ryan alums Paul Rohling and Deacon Harry Guess. “I wanted an endowment so it would last forever,” Deacon Hill said. “I wanted it to continue the legacy of Katharine Drexel.”
“I wanted to give the people who had benefited from Katharine Drexel an opportunity to pay back,” he added.
Originally the goal was to raise $50,000 over five years, which will end on June 30, 2022. But the response to the fund has been strong, and Deacon Hill said he is on track to raise $175,000 to $180,000 by next year.
Deacon Hill has received many donations from the community and expressed his gratitude for the support from the parishioners at St. Vincent de Paul Church and those at Holy Family Church as well as Holy Family Pastor Father Joseph McMahon. “They love Father Ryan, and it’s a way to help the students at Father Ryan,” Deacon Hill said.
Anyone interested in learning more about the St. Katharine Drexel Scholarship Fund or in ordering copies of Sister Sandra’s books to benefit the fund can call Deacon Hill at 615-496-5797. More information about donating to the fund directly is also available by contacting the Father Ryan Advancement Office at 615-269-7926 or visiting www.fatherryan.org/support-father-ryan.