The Vatican made a wise decision by choosing former Memphian and Archbishop J. Peter Sartain to head up the church’s continuing study of the Catholic Sisters of the United States with its focus on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
The study has been embroiled in controversy. Sartain’s family background and proven ability as a church leader and venerable priest make him a very capable leader in this study.
He and his siblings were trained in their youth by the Sisters of Mercy and St. Cecilia Dominican Sisters at St. Paul, St. Thomas and Bishop Byrne schools in Memphis. One of his siblings, Sister Marian Sartain, OP, is a Nashville Dominican Sister and a member of its General Council. I am sure Archbishop Sartain would credit the seeds of his priestly vocation from the religious sisters who taught him in his early years.
I am in the middle of reading Father D.A. Quinn’s 1887 memoir of the yellow fever epidemics (1873, 1878, 1879) that ravaged and almost destroyed Memphis. Father Quinn had been pastor at St. Brigid Church at Overton and Third during those terrible times.
When I rode the city bus in Memphis as a boy, I would see Sisters, Brothers and priests board the bus and pass by the driver without putting any coins in the fare machine. I once asked my mother why they did not have to pay a fare like the rest of us. Mother told me quickly, “Oh, they stayed in Memphis and cared for yellow fever victims when others left the city for safety. It was decreed that they would not pay carfare in recognition of their sacrifice.”
Father Quinn’s work details much of that sacrifice. Well over 50 sisters and 25 priests died in Memphis while caring for yellow fever victims.
Orphans from the Civil War, the children from the yellow fever epidemics and countless other children were nurtured at St. Peter’s Orphanage, first by the Kentucky Dominican Sisters and then by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth who came to Memphis in 1887 following the deaths of so many Dominicans due to yellow fever. The crowded convent there housed not only the community of sisters for St. Peter Home, but also sisters teaching at Catholic schools in Memphis, but living at St. Peter’s.
Countless Memphians today have parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who were raised by these sisters at St. Peter’s.
My sisters and I attended Sacred Heart School at Cleveland and Jefferson. More than 25 Sisters of Charity lived in the convent. Little did we know that they lived two or three to a room, shared one or two baths and also lived in the music rooms downstairs, and that across Jefferson a similar-size rectory with four baths housed three priests.
Catholic sisters lived all over Memphis, often in houses built for one family. At Little Flower School in its first 20 years of operation, the sisters walked a mile from North Parkway and Evergreen to the school on Jackson. The salary of roughly $40 per month per sister was given to the superior to support the local community and the Motherhouse. They taught classes of 50 and 60 children to a room. Any gifts they received went to the superior’s desk. They were good teachers, and they loved us and inspired us.
The Catholic parishes in the city today are operated and filled by their former students, and many of the priests in the parishes were trained by them in their youth and owe the seeds of their vocations to these women. This writer owes his vocation to those Sisters of Charity of Nazareth at Sacred Heart. When African-Americans were segregated in schools in Memphis, it was Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin, and also of Nazareth, who taught them at St. Augustine and St. Anthony.
Today, the numbers of religious sisters in Memphis, once over 200, are much diminished. St. Joseph Hospital and St. Peter Home are now memories, and the schools opened by the sisters are now in the hands of capable lay people. The cemeteries of the Sisters’ Motherhouses have rows and rows of the graves of these wonderful women who raised us, who taught us, who cared for us when we were sick and who prayed for us. They loved us. They led us to God.
And today much of the funding in their communities leaves their coffers and goes to aid for the elderly, immigrants, those suffering with AIDS, countries racked by poverty and war, and the promotion of peace and justice.
So, along with Sartain’s continuing examination of the Catholic Sisters in the United States, there should be ample appreciation and praise for these great women of faith and service and thousands of their predecessors.
Brother Joel William McGraw, F.S.C., is assistant principal at Christian Brothers High School.