Sister Sandra Smithson, a 95-year-old Franciscan nun, has lived her extraordinary life on the forefront of change, revolutions even, in her country and her church. In the days before the Civil Rights movement, she insisted on joining one of the few racially integrated religious orders in the country. During the emergence of the Liberation Theology movement in Latin America, she was there working to alter the social structures oppressing the poor. Back in her home state of Tennessee, she founded an independent non-profit organization to work directly with children who come from a culture of poverty.
Raised in a close-knit family of 10 children, Sister Sandra was deeply interested in contemplating the mysteries of her Catholic faith from a young age. Educated by white nuns in segregated Catholic schools, she learned early of the fraught relationship between the church and people of color. Yet she could not shake the calling she felt to devote her life to God as a nun. Throughout her long life, Sister Sandra has challenged the status quo even when it put her at great personal risk, seeking to change her beloved church from the inside rather than deserting it.
My book will share Sister Sandra’s life story while exploring the largely untold history of the Black Catholic experience in Tennessee and beyond, from the Great Depression through modern times. Along with other voices from Sister Sandra’s childhood parish, the only historically African-American Catholic church in Middle Tennessee, this book will recount the struggles of Black Catholics who challenged local church leaders to view racial justice as a moral issue for the first time.
For over 60 years as a Franciscan nun, Sister Sandra has been involved in educating children—from the privileged suburbs of Chicago, to the barrios of Latin America, to the public housing projects of Nashville—and has touched many lives. Even today, she remains devoutly committed to working directly with disadvantaged public school students while striving to reform local and national education policy to better serve these children.
From her days as a young postulant in a Milwaukee convent to founding a charter school in Nashville 50 years later, it has not always been easy for Sister Sandra to fulfill her mission as a nun and an educator.
Thoughtful, opinionated, beholden only to God’s will and her own conscience, Sister Sandra continues to tread on the margins of society and the church, working to “bring good news to the poor” and raise her voice for the voiceless. She is an unforgettable real-life protagonist who follows God’s call regardless of the power structures stacked against her, and her story will provides a unique look at the life and work of an African-American nun during times of tumultuous change.