On Easter Sunday, 1916, three Sisters of St. Joseph (in the Diocese of St. Augustine) received a call to appear in court the next morning promptly at 9am. The sisters, of course, would oblige and one would go on to be placed under house arrest, but what this story tells us about resistance to improper authority, and obedience to God is just right for this month’s remembrances.
The Sisters of St. Joseph, an order founded in 1650 in France, had first come to the New World in 1866 at the request of Augustin Verot, the first bishop of St. Augustine. This would have been right after the Civil War, and tensions about what to do with the “newly freed slaves” were at a high, and Florida legislators had passed several measures to ensure that there was still a very clear separation of whites and blacks within the structure of the population. Bishop Verot had the forethought to see that the large population of former slaves would need an education to be able to function well going forward, and thus had commissioned the Sisters to have a Motherhouse built in his Diocese. By 1899 the Sisters had been established as a diocesan congregation and assumed a statewide role as pioneers in the fields of education, health care, and social services.
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the arrival of their order to Florida, it seems the Sisters of St. Joseph would have been unlikely to expect to be arrested for what they had been called to as part of their mission, but that was exactly what happened. Of the three sisters arrested that Monday, two were released on their own recognizance. One, the principal, Sister Thomasine Hehir, refused to pay the $25 bond and was brought before the court. Her official charge? “arraigned on the offense of, to whit, a white teacher teaching negroes in a negro school.” And because she had refused to pay the bond, the court was “commanded to convey the said Sister Thomasine to the county jail and deliver her to the keeper thereof.” Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and the sister was allowed to remain under house arrest at the convent for the remainder of her trial. The bishop at the time, Bishop Michael Joseph Curley, went very public with his outrage at this arrest, threatening to take the case even to the federal Supreme Court. Eventually, Judge George Cooper Gibbs called the law into question and dismissed it on the grounds of it not pertaining to private schools on May 29th, 1916, a month after Sister Thomasine’s arrest.
The bigger story here is this, long before the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s, the Catholic Church was providing essential services to minority members of the communities they served. Forward thinking bishops could see a need where it presented itself, and acted on that need accordingly. Though this is the most public instance of Civil Disobedience of this kind from Catholics, we can be pretty certain it wasn’t the only one. Despite this adversity, the Sisters of St. Joseph went right back to serving the community they were called to, and though many of their schools have now closed, there is one, St. Pius School in Jacksonville, which was founded in 1921 and still serves the K – 8 ages. Many of these students are now fourth and fifth generation. What a legacy.