Cover photo for Sister Sandra Olivia Smithson's Obituary
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Sister Sandra Olivia Smithson

March 3, 1926 — May 13, 2022

FRANCISCAN SISTER SANDRA OLIVIA SMITHSON, well known as Sister Sandra, of Nashville, Tennessee, passed away peacefully on Friday, May 13, 2022, at the age of 96.
Sister Sandra was born on March 3, 1926, in Nashville, Tennessee to the late Mr. John Lee and Mrs. Lu Ora Berry Smithson. She was the sixth of ten children; eight have preceded her in death: brother, John Lee Smithson, Jr. (Portia), sister, Mary Elizabeth Craighead (Robert), sister, Dorcus Lynn Alley (Ivory), sister, Verleon H. Grant (Roscoe), Hewrie Esther Haswell (James), Launa Craighead (Theodore), Clarence H. Smithson (Abbie), sister Lael Agnes Fields (Charles), and survived by brother, Oliver Moore (Tony) Smithson (Frankie/diseased). She was also survived by a host of nieces, nephews, cousins, friends, sisters and brothers of the faith, and colleagues.

Left to cherish her memory are her devoted friends: Sister Mary Acerbi, Sister Arleen Welding, Sister Marianne Poole, Bishop Fernand J. Cherri, III., Joan McGranaghan, Mary Ann Dunn, LeKita Stevenson, Deacon Mark Faulkner, Deacon Jim Holzmer, Conner Mulloy (godson), Dianne Mulloy, Irene Boyd, Jean Verber, and Patricia Gunn.

Sister Sandra attended Catholic schools founded by Sister Katharine Drexel from first grade through college: St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, Immaculate Mother Academy, and Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana. She excelled in academics, sports, and peer leadership. After graduating with honors from Xavier University, New Orleans, she was granted a teaching fellowship at Fisk University to work toward a Master’s 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.” Her show 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 (forerunner of the Gallop Poll and the Neilson Ratings).

In 1954, she answered an internal call to religious life and joined the School Sisters of St. Francis based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

At her passing she had 67 plus years in religious life working 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. In the mid 1960s, she reclaimed her birth name and was then known as “Sister Sandra.” She has served as an administrator, author, publisher, mentor, teacher, lecturer, negotiator, spiritual leader, and remained a visionary.

In 1992, Sister Sandra founded Project Reflect, a nonprofit organization in Nashville whose mission is “transforming communities through education and policy reform.” Sister Sandra was its Executive Director from 1992 through 2014. The organization focuses on reading literacy, and in 2000 translated its Reading Success program into computer software, Reading Success in the Itty Bitty City. Then in 2002 Sister Sandra was a major influencer in passing the first charter school legislation for the State of Tennessee. Under the new law, in August 2003 Project Reflect opened Middle Tennessee’s first free, public charter school, Smithson Craighead Academy (SCA) elementary school, which serves primarily African-American and Latinx children from low-income families.

After her retirement as Executive Director of Project Reflect, she 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 administrators to support and improve public schools. Her desire was that all schools — traditional public, public charter, and private — meet standards of excellence to produce graduates adequately prepared for college, careers, and life.

In recent years, Sister Sandra published several books, many available on with proceeds going to help fund the (St. Katharine) Drexel Scholarship at Father Ryan High School for academically promising African-American students from low-income families.

Public Viewing will be held Sunday, May 22, 2022 from 2 p.m. - 4 p.m. at Lewis & Wright Funeral Directors. Sister Sandra’s funeral services are Monday, May 23, 2022, at The Cathedral of the Incarnation, 2015 West End Avenue, Nashville, Tennessee. Visitation will start at 9 a.m., rosary 9:40 a.m. with services starting at 10 a.m. Interment at the Hills of Calvary Memorial Park Cemetery, 4111 Ashland City Highway, Nashville, Tennessee 37218. Repass immediately following the burial at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church. Funeral services provided by Lewis & Wright Funeral Directors, Richard A. Lewis, Sr., 2500 Clarksville Highway, Nashville, Tennessee 37208. In lieu of flowers the family requests contributions to made to the (Sister Katharine) Drexel Scholarship at Father Ryan High School,, 615-383-4200. For more information about Sister Sandra’s services please contact Lewis & Wright Funeral Directors at 615-255-2371.

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