This story was written and conducted by Sister Maria V. Brocato, SCN, in December, 2015. The interviewer will have italicized remarks in Sister Grace Maria’s story.
(In preparation for a visit with Sister Grace Maria Saia I reflected on an earlier interview written by Sister Marie John Kelley. Sister Grace’s history of ministry is indeed inspiring. She is a Daughter of Catherine in many ways, among them – losing her mother at an early age and pioneering in education, especially for the poor.)
Sister Grace Maria was named for her mother and baptized Grace Ann. Her parents – Samuel Sr. and Grace Maggio Saia – were natives of Cefalu, Sicily, and came over as children to the United States through the Port of New Orleans. Their families left the rough and tumble city of early New Orleans, with the Saia men working on the oyster and other Mississippi River boats. The Saia family settled in Helena, Arkansas, a small town on the banks of the Mississippi.
Sam Saia and Grace Maggio grew up, married, and became a devoted, faith filled couple, very loyal to the Church and to their large family. Mother Grace bore thirteen children, nine of whom grew to adulthood. The names of the children are a loving tribute to the Italian practice of naming children for older relatives, especially grandparents. Sadly, this dear mother died right after childbirth. She performed one last act of maternal love by asking for water and baptizing the child cradled in her arms, both of whom were soon in Heaven.
Sister Grace says, “My father was so strong, determined to keep us together. I was seven; my oldest sister, Florine, was engaged to be married. My father built a house next door for Florine and George (Petkoff) with money he and my mother had saved with the hope of a larger store and house. Florine became a second mother to us, taking us to school, getting our clothes made, being a true big sister to us little girls. Each summer she took us to get three new dresses made for school. Florine’s first child, George, and I would grow up together. I consider him like a brother and he thinks of me as his big sister mentor.”
The Saia family was fortunate in having African — American neighbors. Little Grace had a playmate whom she remembers with affection, Levalle by name. Levalle was an only child and must have delighted to have so many children nearby. These early contacts would help Sister Grace’s being at ease with African Americans students, parents, clients in her later ministries. She also remembers her dear cousin, Angela Brocato. These relationships were comfort for a young child missing her mother.
Helena was blessed with lovely Sacred Heart Academy, opened by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in 1879. It was situated on a small hill with a sweeping front lawn and beautiful magnolia trees. The Catholic community of Helena could be assured that their children would be given quality education in faith and academics. Religious vocations were inspired at Sacred Heart Academy.
(At present there are three SCNs who attended Sacred Heart Academy – Sisters Grace Saia, Paschal Maria Fernicola, Maria Vincent Brocato. Sister Rita Maria Coco, SCN, and her two Jesuit brothers grew up in Helena. Sister Margaret Dillier entered the SCN Community from nearby West Helena. Two of the Clancy brothers, students at SHA, entered the seminary. Tommy Clancy became a Jesuit priest. )
During high school and after, Grace enjoyed her youthful time of social mixing and activities After high school she had three years of work experience at her father’s store and then a library. Within herself Grace had a desire to which she wanted to respond. She approached a good friend of the family, Fr.Joseph Hanichek, who was pastor of St. Cyrian’s, an African American parish in West Helena. She told him that she would like to enter a religious community, a decision which would come as a definite surprise to her family.
Fr. Hanichek recommended the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in faraway Poughkeepsie, New York, Upon arrival there Grace was given a set of books and told that she would begin teaching the next day. This initial surprise and other experiences, such as using only Italian for meditation prayer, led Grace to know this European community was not where she belonged. She withdrew after six months and returned home to Helena where God had other designs for her.
We remember that in the days before Sisters drove themselves, many kind lay friends offered the gift and convenience of needed rides. Grace was driving the Sisters at Sacred Heart Academy when it happened that Mother Bertrand, SCN, was there for her convent visitation. After Gace’s name was mentioned, she agreed to visit with Mother Bertrand. Grace found Mother Bertrand very kind, a good listener ,friendly, and not at all “pushy” or insisting on talking about religious vocation. Grace shared that her time away in New York did help her to realize that she could talk to God anytime, no matter what she might be doing, – sweeping, cleaning, whatever. Later Grace would learn from the Sisters that Mother Bertrand wisely cautioned the Sisters ,” That young girl has a vocation. She will come to the realization on her own. Leave her alone.”
God did not leave Grace alone. God knew that she wanted to help people, especially children. Religious life was one way to live out that desire. and Grace entered the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Novitiate on January 18, 1949. After two and a half years and first vows in 1951, Sister Grace began a life of service and ministry that has blessed many.
She soon discovered that “Children are my love. They give me energy and move me forward. My heart responds to them in special ways.” Grace taught the fourth grade briefly and was moved to the first grade which she considers her special place. Time and time again she would be assigned to this difficult grade and it remained her classroom preference. She was an excellent teacher and had the love and competence that teaching requires.
Grace was assigned to teach first grade in elementary schools in several locations- Blessed Sacrament School in Louisville, Kentucky, St. William’s in Millington, Tennessee, St. Andrew’s in Roanoke, Virginia, St. Rita’s in Alexandria, Louisiana, two months in Annunciation Academy in Pine Bluff, Arkansas to replace the very well recognized primary teacher, Sister Stephen Maria Hayden, and also St. Anthony’s in Memphis, Tennessee.
Grace acknowledges that these were years of adjustment – to convent life and ministry , to being away from her large, close Italian family. She realized that the early loss of her dear mother probably figured in this journey to find herself and her place in the SCN Community. With her passion for the needs of children and her strong opinions ,living in community was often times a challenge.
During this time she completed a Bachelor Degree in Education from Spalding College (now University) in Louisville. The changes of Vatican II were beginning to affect the lives of religious women everywhere, including SCNs. She and two others – former member Jean Gish and Sister Rita Vaughan, asked the Provincial, Sister Ann Victoria Cruz, if they could move out of the established convent into a house or apartment. She gave consent but required that they find means of supporting themselves.
All three found teaching jobs. Grace was employed by the Jefferson County Public School system. The coming years would be different from anything Grace had ever known. Her school was in a poor area of the city and the children brought many problems to the school. Family relationships were unsettled; some parents seemed to have little care for their children and had serious problems of their own. The children came to school with injuries and often times hungry, Often times the children lived out the chaos in their lives by having violent reaction to situations.
After two years of observing and lamenting the regrettable lives of the children and their parents, Grace took and passed the qualifying test for social work from the Department of Human Services( This was the process then. The three persons with the highest grades were automatically accepted.) Since other teachers had told Grace that that the parents of these children would only listen to a social worker, she hoped she could help them in this way. She began the challenging task of visiting the homes of students and attempting to assist parents in improving their own lives and those of the children.(Sister Grace has many a painful and startling story to tell of these five and a half years.)During this same time Grace had received a Master Degree in Education from Spalding College(University).
Following those memorable years of teaching and being a social worker, Grace would return to Catholic schools: St. Luke School in Louisville, St. Ann School in Bartlett, Tennessee and Holy Name School in Henderson. Kentucky. Her next ministry call was to St. Michael School in Memphis as Assistant Principal and then principal at Blessed Sacrament School in Memphis.
Blessed Sacrament was again a poor school in a poor area. Grace served there for five years. The first year and a half there was very satisfying nd goo. After that, she experienced many difficulties with the pastor who did not place high value on the school. As always with Grace, she saw the school as the mean of bringing life and hope to children. Sadly, Blessed Sacrament School closed the year after she left. This school had the good fortunate to reopen in 2003 as a Jubilee School.
By 1986, Sister Grace had received a second Master Degree, this time in Educational Administration from St. Thomas University in Minneapolis, Minnesota.The next four years of ministry were as Assistant Principal at Holy Rosary School, then the largest school in the Diocese of Memphis. Her pastor there was the well- known and well- loved Fr. Milton Guthrie.
When Fr. Guthrie was assigned to a new not-yet-established parish in Memphis called Our Lady of Perpetual Help, he asked Grace to become the founding principal. This was an entirely different situation for her. The school was not yet built; the parishioners were people with financial means, highly educated and professional; nearby there was St. George’s, a rival well regarded Episcopal school. She recalls,” I had the great joy of watching, as it were, the school rise out of the ground.” However, before there was brick and mortar to see, Grace formed a Parent Teacher Organization.
She remembers, “We had regular meetings and we ventured out into having fund raisers …. By the time the first part of the building was built we had a very active PTO and had raised enough funds to purchase the furniture of the school and the books.” Fr. Guthrie was very supportive of having a Catholic school. He also wanted SCNs to give it a good foundation and a religious presence for its beginning. Wisely, the school began with the lower grades and it was four years before there were plans for expansion into middle and upper grades.
During her four years at Our Lady of Perpetual School Grace did her best to provide the children with as many advantages as possible. They opened a modern computer center and a modern media center, among other benefits to the children. St. George’s, of course, was fifty years ahead in its growth and development.
One day Grace received a phone call from Dr. Mary McDonald, the Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Memphis. This was a call to a pioneer mission for God’s neediest children. The year was 2000, the Church’s Jubilee Year, and a great blessing had come to the Diocese and the City of Memphis. Anonymous non-Catholic donors had given the Diocese of Memphis a multi-million dollar gift to open Jubilee Schools in facilities that were once thriving Catholic schools. Their belief was that Catholic schools gave better education than public schools in the poverty areas of Memphis. Most of the Jubilee schools were to be in those areas, areas often times noted for high crime. The donors considered their financial support an investment in the future of Memphis.
Grace’s invitation from Dr. McDonald was to be principal of St. John’s Jubilee School on Lamar Avenue. Directly behind the school was a low income housing project where the police would periodically go for drug raids. The police even parked in the St. John parking lot.
This is Sister Grace’s own description: “We had to build a fence between the apartments and the school yard because the children would go out into that area and find needles, condoms and sometimes even a small bag of marijuana. We opened with seventeen children in the kindergarten and when the teacher would give assignments to take home, they didn’t have paper or pencils or crayons at home. They came from families that had no educational materials, no toys. They had no structure in their lives. The children were dropped off at Day Care as early as 6;30 a.m…and were not well cared for. They (Day Care owners) hired inexperienced people who didn’t care for children but needed the money”. They often received minimum wage…$5.15 an hour. …” The children were allowed to run loose or hear rock music that might have foul language. We had these children coming into our school.”
It became apparent to Sister Grace that a preschool was needed and she contacted Dr. McDonald to propose a 3K for three year olds and a 4K for four year olds. She received approval and set up a program for the children. With the three year olds they needed to learn how to socialize with and respect other children, how to be still and listen, how to accept structure in their lives. The four year olds could learn the alphabet and have other educational experiences. Families now vie for place in the preschool classes at St. John’s. It is gratifying to note that since St, John’s initiated its preschool program other Catholic schools, including the Jubilee schools , have followed this wise practice.
The Jubilee School donors expected accountability and, with Diocesan direction,Sister Grace put in place measures to assess the children’s progress and the growth of the school. She established percentiles and graphs as well as ways to determine the fees families should pay according to their income. The donors believed that every family should be interested enough to pay something, even being willing to sacrifice for their child’s education. Families submitted their tax form from the previous year and, according to that record, could pay monthly as little as ten dollars or as much as two hundred. Grace learned to advertise and spread the “ good news” of the education being offered to the families in the St. John area.
A wise decision on Sister Grace’s part was to train a lay teacher to be ready to replace her. Another wisdom she left with St. John’s is the knowledge and awareness of the life of Catherine Spalding and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. SCNs had already contributed to St. John’s with grants to purchase computers and other educational equipment needed by the children. Grace was instrumental in putting before the Diocese and the many people who had been connected to SCNs, the word that the SCN history and legacy which they knew and appreciated was being passed on to others.
When SCN Trudy Foster became the principal at Jubilee Little Flower School, Dr. Mc Donald approached Western Province leadership and asked if there could be a connection between the SCN Community and these two Jubilee Schools. The SCN charism was valued and would benefit both schools. Little Flower and St. John’s did become SCN endorsed schools in September, 2003. While this endorsement does not mean personnel or financial responsibility, it does mean a supportive and contributing presence and influence on the part of the SCN Community,
( That Catherine’s and the SCN spirit remain there was evidenced by the interviewer when St. John School faculty, along with the faculty of Jubilee Little Flower School, came to Nazareth in the Fall, 2015. The values and goals supported by the faculties reflected the concern for children that Catherine had… and which Sister Grace lived out so well. On the Web both schools mention their connection to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.)
When Sister Grace left St. John’s in 2003 the school enrollment was up to the third grade and there was a waiting list. With good reason Sister Grace had this to say with gratitude and pride,” I am most proud of this ministry at St. John’s.” It remains a special place in her heart and memory.
Her mission for the education and development of children was not over. Grace remained in Memphis for the next twelve years and was an employee and then a volunteer Consultant of Urban Education for the Diocese of Memphis. This role involved supervising and assisting teachers in both Jubilee and other Catholic schools in the western area of Memphis.
During these same years she accomplished something else for children, a work very welcomed by the SCN Community. She wrote Catherine Spalding, Woman of Kentucky, the first book for children on the life of Catherine, published in 2013.
(This interviewer was privileged to see an inspiring reading performance based on this book by the students of St. Agnes School in Louisville , Kentucky. When the performance was repeated for the Sisters at Nazareth, Sister Grace was able to see her book come alive in the voices of those children It has been used by other schools as a reading and learning project.)
In 2015 Sister Grace retired to Nazareth after her long and dedicated ministry for the education of children. She still keeps aware of possibilities to serve those in need, such as a feeding the refugees at a Louisville restaurant or going to a Center for the poor in Appalachia. Sister Grace’s words echo her faith and dedication: “ God has given me the grace and ability to do so many things I never could have done by myself.”
(All of us could echo Sister Grace’s words in our own lives. It is the view of this interviewer that Sister Grace will always be looking for a response to “What can I do to help others?” Her heart and will are too strong to forget the poor, especially the children.)