My father, Pasquale (Paschal) Fernicola, came from San Gregorio Magno, Italy with a group of cousins and friends when he was sixteen years old. They came through Elis Island, took the train from Grand Central Station to the boat dock on the Ohio River and landed in St. Louis, Missouri where they got jobs ferrying freight between the boats and the post office. They eventually heard that another group of Italians had settled in northwest Mississippi, near Clarksdale, and decided to pay them a visit. That is how my father and mother met each other.
My mother’s parents were married and lived in Salerno, Italy. Their first child, Lucy, was born there and was a baby in arms when they came to the States and settled on a small cotton plantation near Clarksdale, Ms. with other immigrants from their same region. My mother, Maria Conchetta (Mary Elizabeth) was their first child born in this country.
On one of his visits with them, my father heard that land in Arkansas was being sold for a dollar an acre. This was fabulously good news for folks with little money, so he bought forty acres of untouched forest land near Helena. With his friends, he built a small house there and cleared a portion of land for a vegetable farm. With the money he saved working in St. Louis, he also sent for his parents from Italy. They lived with him until they got settled and opened a small grocery store as a source of livelihood.
My parents were married and moved into the house where I was born on July 21, 1928. There eventually were six of us children, two girls and four boys. I, Theresa, was the oldest, followed by Gregory, Paul, Mary, Anthony and Francis.
We went to Sacred Heart Academy which was a grade and high school owned and staffed by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. I dearly loved all my teachers – their kindness, understanding, patience and personal interest in us. I also liked to watch them pray. A group of us girls would sit in the back of the chapel and wait for the Sisters to come for their after-dinner prayers.
One afternoon when I was in the eighth grade, I was walking home with a group of friends. Ahead of us were two Sisters with a large basket between them. We knew they had vegetables in it, because they had a large kitchen garden, but what were they going to do with it? We decided to follow them – at a respectful distance. They were going to the poor section of Helena, where they entered a little shack. We knew instinctively that they were giving it to the family! I remember turning to my friends and saying, “That’s what I want to do!” The more I saw of them, the more I knew I wanted to be one of them!
I entered the Novitiate on June 8, 1947 and made my first vows on December 8, 1949, a Friday. Unbeknownst to me, my future local community was present for that wonderful occasion, and on the following day, they accompanied me to my first mission in Union City, Tennessee on the train which was four hours late, due to heavy rains! To relieve an older Sister, I was to start teaching the following Monday; kindergarten in the mornings, and first, second, third and fourth grades in the afternoons. That Sunday after Mass and dinner, I was introduced to my classrooms and to my books. The principal and I made out the lesson plan for the day, but by ten o’clock the next day I had taught everything we had planned! So I asked her what I should I do? “Easy”, she answered, “just start over.” That was the beginning of a great career in education which I thoroughly enjoyed all my life!
Besides teaching during the week, on the first and third Sundays, we also went with the pastor to a little town about fifty miles away, Paris, TN, to be at Mass with the few Catholics there and to teach religion to the children afterwards. On the first Sunday of the following May, we were involved in a terrible car accident which sent all of us to the small hospital. Luckily, two of us escaped with lacerations and minor wounds, but the pastor, Father James Wiley, spent many weeks in a hospital in Memphis. The Superior, Sister Mary Clara Langenbacher, died a week later after being taken to St. Joseph Infirmary in Louisville. What touched me most, was the great care of the Sisters who came from Nazareth and from Paducah, KY. to assist and to be present to us. Two Sisters from Paducah took over our classrooms all the following week and cooked our meals for us while we tried to recover from the shock of it all. A dear, retired Sister from Nazareth, Sister Mary Severina Krokovicki came to live with us until the end of the school year.
I was given a new assignment that summer which was to teach first and second grades at St. Philip Neri School in Louisville, KY. It proved to be my most difficult and painful mission, even though the people were most beautiful and thoughtful.
From there, I went to St. Edward School in Brockton, Massachusetts as second grade teacher for six years. My southern drawl must have struck a heavy blow to northern ears, because the first thing one of my sensitive students boldly called out was, “Sistah, you don’t tawk right!” “Well,” I responded, “y’all don’t either” and we all erupted in gales of laughter! This new language must have intrigued my students. They began playing school –complete with “southern drawl” – right under our classroom window during recess to make sure I could hear them! We had so much fun together my whole time there. My first experience of seeing the ocean was breathtakingly awesome.
Calvert City, KY, my next mission, was a twenty-minute ride from Paducah, KY and just about that far from the great and beautiful Kentucky Lake and Park in the opposite direction. The small town itself was the scene of seven huge chemical plants and research centers, so the majority of citizens were very highly educated. The children there were eager to learn – a teacher’s paradise! I was privileged to be there only three years, from 1965 to 1968. By that time, immediately after Vatican II and the explosion of the early sixties, the whole world seemed to be changing before our very eyes. Our school was small, bus service to Paducah schools was easy and our SCN community personnel was dwindling. The school closed at the end of that school-year, amid much sorrow and tears for parents, students – and faculty.
My next mission, Pine Bluff, Arkansas didn’t hold promise of being very pleasant, since I knew well the southern mind-set concerning race relations. I was charged with integrating the all-white St. Joseph School (formerly Annunciation Academy), and the all-black St. Peter School, seven city-blocks away. First, I got all the parties involved together to draw up a four-year plan toward full integration at the start of the fourth school-year. All had a part in the plan and it seemed to be going rather well, though, of course, there were murmurs and complaints. The public schools were also integrating and having the same reactions. However, at the end of the third year, I received a letter from our parish school board, composed of rich cotton growers and the aging pastor, signed by every member, telling me they no longer needed me there – that they disagreed with my philosophy. I immediately sent them my letter of resignation. The other three Sisters on the faculty did likewise. School board members had been meeting secretly with the seven lay teachers and had planned to remain segregated with the fifth grade teacher as principal. When the news broke, there was great protest from the parents and students alike. The final result was that the majority of parents enrolled their children in St. Peter School, because it was also a Catholic school and because they didn’t want their children to be in a “white haven” environment. When Bishop McDonald heard what had happened, he immediately ordered the white school to close. So the Catholic school became integrated after all.
My next venture was at St. Ann School on Highland Avenue in Memphis, as religion, social studies and science teacher for the upper grades. This school also was going through the integration process, seemingly well. Considering the mood of the times, the principal of the school, Sister Rita DeMatte, received a letter like mine at the end of that school-year, and again, all the other Sisters on the faculty resigned and the school closed. The funny thing about that was that the pastor called Sister Rita to invite all of us to dinner to show his gratitude for all the SCNs had done through the years. When she told us, we said. “No way – we would choke on every bite!” As we talked about it however, we decided that we would go and order the most expensive thing on the menu! When Rita called back to accept the invitation, he told her that he had reserved prime rib dinners at the Revolving Restaurant for the following evening – even more expensive than we could have imagined! Oh the incongruities of life, if we could only laugh!
From St. Ann, I went to St. Michael School, also in Memphis, as second grade teacher. As I was preparing the students for their First Communion, the parents made it obvious that they needed help in their understanding of the new Vatican II Church. Sister Brigid Cottle at Holy Rosary School had the same awareness. We spoke with our Southern Provincial, Sister Mary Reisz, and she helped us obtain a scholarship from the Catholic Church Extension Society to study Scripture and Religious Studies at Fordham University in New York.
To our surprise when we arrived, our Sister Marietta Saldanha from India, was also starting her studies there. We had a great year and a half, earned Masters’ Degrees, saw as many sights New York had to offer and took in every opportunity available to us in our free time. In return, we were known on the campus as the “happy southern belles”, a title we all cherished.
On returning to Memphis, I ministered at Our Lady of Sorrows with the adults, helping them understand their Vatican II Church and its call to them to offer their gifts for the good of all.
After three years there, I went to Raymondville, Texas, an hour from the Mexican border. I worked as Pastoral Minister in the main parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and three village missions; Hargill, Lasara and San Perlita. During my seven year stay there was an average of about eight other SCNs. It was there that I learned Spanish, especially from the children, my best teachers. This was during the times of the terrible civil wars in Central America and of Caesar Chavez’s struggle for farmworkers’ rights. It was also a time of great risks, dangers and high adventure to help the escaping refugees from the surrounding countries and the local migrant farmworkers. One of our members, Carol Messina, SCN, gave her life, but at her funeral the “short-handle hoe”, which through her efforts primarily, finally became illegal, was brought in as an offering of deepest gratitude and appreciation to her.
Because of dwindling personnel, our mission in Raymondville came to a close, and I moved on to Warren, Arkansas to join a lay woman to advocate for the farmworkers in the famous pink tomato fields. The wealthy farmers recruited Mexican workers whom they housed in chicken coops –after raising chickens in the off-months. They obliged them to buy their necessities at the farmers’ shop and at the end of the season, call the immigration officers to deport them back to Mexico. The workers had no money, they were told, because they had spent it all as credit at the shop during their stay. Each farmer had large packs of ferocious dogs to frighten the workers from coming to their homes.
At that time, the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock had a strong Peace and Justice Department, with several lawyers donating many pro bono hours. They taught us how to walk through the pack of dogs (Stay in the car with windows closed. Smile and talk baby-talk to the dogs until their tails start wagging and they stop barking. Then ever so slowly open the door, continue the baby-talk and calmly walk to the farmer’s house.) Once there, we met the men pointing their guns at us and ordering us off their property, once they knew what we wanted. Of course, we left immediately, and wrote depositions on everything that was wrong. The lawyers took up from there, and called the farmers to court. It was tough work, but it paid off for the poor workers.
Next, I was Pastoral Associate for three years between two rural parishes in south-central Arkansas, which had various priests coming only on Sundays for Liturgy and Sacramental ministry. I was happy when soon I received a call from our President at the time, Sister Emily Nabholz, asking if I had ever thought of going to Belize. I really hadn’t, but it was an exciting challenge which delighted me!
So in August of 1987, Sisters Ann Kernen, with whom I would live and minister in San Ignacio, Cayo District and Barbara Flores who helped me through Customs met me at the tiny airport near Belize City. On our way home, I noticed the Maya Mountains to our left of the highway. They reminded me of the foothills of the Ozark Mountains where I grew up in Arkansas, and I felt at home immediately!
The people were warm, accepting and eager to learn. I worked mostly in religious education, with teachers, children and other adults and learned the richness and beauty of the many cultures and personalities of the region. It was a real “honeymoon time” with Belize!
When I went south, deep into the rain forest of the Maya Mountains of San Antonio, Toledo District, I felt as if I were in a totally different country! It also, was breathtakingly beautiful, and the gentle, quiet Maya people blessed me deeply with their goodness and love. Their poverty and oppression challenged me beyond words, and I was determined to do all I could to be of help. The women especially, responded with courage, and some things did improve for them somewhat by the time I left.
Independence, often called by its old name, Mango Creek, in the Stann Creek District of Belize, was my next mission. It was the heart of the banana-growing area of the country. The workforce was composed almost entirely of very poor immigrants from the surrounding Central American countries. During my first weeks there as pastoral minister, I heard dreadful stories of their treatment by the rich owners of the farms. Since I was a guest in the country, I felt helpless to challenge the system.
One day a young Belizean mother and her husband came to ask if I would support them if they attempted to organize a union among the workers. Delightedly, I promised not only to support, but to be right there with them in the struggle for justice.
I admired the courage and bravery of the workers who risked deportation or retaliation if discovered in this endeavor. Yet nothing stopped them because conditions were so bad. They lived in huts or lean-tos in the banana fields, had no privacy or out-houses, washed their dishes, clothes and themselves in the trenches flowing with the run-off water from the fields and were paid on an average from ten to twenty cents an hour. Their only water supply was from a central unprotected well, which received debris and the polluted run-off water from the fields whenever it rained. One can only imagine the nutrition and health problems this caused. Fear did not dissuade the men and women workers from the public meetings and rallies we organized for them, or from the Sunday afternoon Masses and sharing sessions we had invited the Jesuits to host. Of course, the members of the rich and powerful Banana Growers Association made it extremely difficult and painful in many varied ways for all of us, especially for the leaders.
Belizeans from all over the country, Bishop O.P. Martin, the SCN/As, and most especially the pro bono lawyers from Belize City and Dangriga gave us unlimited support and courage. The “last straw” from the Banana Growers, was their accusation that we had orchestrated the murder of a notorious field captain whom we only knew as the “lobo” (Spanish for “wolf” because of his cruelty).
The lawyers then decided they had a solid case of libel against them in addition to everything else. In the meantime, Chana Funes, the young mother with whom I worked, became very ill and had to be flown to the States. So I was asked to be the main witness in court, and was on the witness stand for almost an hour. The only time we all laughed “out loud” during those seven years of struggle was right there in that court room when I was asked if I knew a person who to me had a feminine sounding name. I said “No, I did not know her.” The man who had asked, sneered, “He was a MAN!” And I calmly replied, “Well, I guess that just proves I didn’t know him.” That was indeed the cause of joyful celebration! We won the case!
By this time, 1999, the SCN personnel had dwindled greatly, and our mission in Independence was closed and the two of us, Rosemarie Kirwan and I, moved to Belize City, our only remaining mission in the country. However, on the weekends, Rosemarie, Maggie Cooper from the Belize City community and I would return to engage with the people there, to their great joy and ours.
In October of that year, Brenda Gonzales from the Belize City Community and I had the marvelous opportunity of going to India with our International Commissions on which we served, for our first and only meeting there in Mokama. All the others had been at Nazareth. I enjoyed three wonderful weeks there, one in meetings, and two, sightseeing in our northern missions and in Nepal.
I returned to Belize City and continued my ministry until January, 2001 when my mother suffered a stroke. I was privileged to go care for her in her home for almost two years. She was then admitted to the hospital with a broken hip, resulting from a fall and died a week later.
By then, I was having health issues of my own. I went to Nazareth, thinking my active ministry days were over. I was happily surprised to be invited back to Belize after a full recovery, and in January of 2006 found myself companioning Sister Higinia Bol, a teacher in Belmopan. In the afternoons on her way back to school, she would drive me to the nearby village of Las Flores where I taught ESL and anything else the women wanted to learn.
The following September, Sister Rosemarie Kirwan and I opened a mission in Las Flores whose population consisted almost entirely of refugees from the war in El Salvadore. I spent hours listening to their horror stories of personal experiences of the deadly conflict. They also told of the welcome with which the Belize government received them and gave them a plot of land on which to rebuild their lives. We all worked together and with grants, fundraising and generous donations from near and far, managed to help the people develop basic necessities for their new situation and new life. My fluency in Spanish was a real asset and blessing.
Seven years later at the end of April, 2013, at the age of 85, I returned to Nazareth to retire. I thoroughly enjoyed my many and varied life experiences and the different cultures and peoples who blessed me all along the way. I am equally enjoying my retirement with extra time for prayer, reading, quiet reflection, sewing, crocheting, writing and being involved in many other activities and sharing time with life-long friends. Among these activities, I was asked to write a book on the history of SCNs in Belize. Of course, Sister Mary Ransom Burke, wrote the first one, WE DRANK THE WATER. Mine is from a different perspective, in reflective story form from our beginnings there in 1975 to the fortieth anniversary in 2015. Both our books suffered a bit during the publishing process but they each share marvelous accounts of “gifts” and wisdom both lavishly given and gratefully received!
For it all – active ministry and retirement – I am most grateful – and am still highly challenged in new ways! Life has been incredibly good and joyful, sharpened by its ups and downs!
Paschal Maria Fernicola, SCN