Two Sisters of Providence on playground duty at St. Ann School in Fayetteville, North Carolina during its early years.

In 1956, Sisters Marie Stephanie Graf, Catherine Livers (formerly Sister Agatha), and Ann Duffy arrived in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to establish St. Ann’s School. The school was the outgrowth of St. Ann’s Parish, an African American parish established in 1939 by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The growth of the parish, the overflow of students at the nearby all-white St. Patrick’s School, the growth of the nearby Fort Bragg Army base, and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision prompted Bishop Vincent Waters to request Sisters of Providence to establish the integrated school.

Sister Laurine Haley, SP, who taught seven years at the school, 1959-1966, including a couple years as principal, describes the experience as among the most meaningful of her life in community. I had the opportunity to speak to Sister Laurine a couple of months ago about her experience in Fayetteville.

Relics of slavery

She started by describing her arrival in Fayetteville in 1959, “It was a shock just seeing a large, red brick building in the center of the main street and asking what it was. I was told that, ‘Oh, that’s where they sold the slaves.’ That hit me.”

Sister Agnes at St. Ann School in its early history.

In addition to the relics of a slavery-promoting past, she noted markers of that present-time that painted a picture of continued oppression and segregation: a sign identifying an alley as a “Black comfort station” – a restroom. “The black people could use only that alleyway, and it was awful, awful. Along the street were very nice accommodations for the white people.”

Seeing the treatment of black people in Fayetteville was a shock for Sister Laurine. She grew up next door to a black family in Massachusetts. “They were no different than us,” she says, “and we would play together, have birthday parties together, and everything.”

The sisters still wore their old habits during her time in Fayetteville, which made them stand out. Sister Laurine recalls, “We were treated just like the black people were treated because we were recognized as ‘Oh, those are the sisters who teach the black kids.’ And so they treated us like black people, and it was a wonderful experience for me.” She says it was wonderful because “It made me realize what it was to feel that I just didn’t belong – we didn’t belong with the white people.”

After a few years of operating St. Ann’s as an integrated school, the sisters decided to integrate St. Patrick’s School as well. It started without fanfare, said Sister Joann Quinkert (formerly Sister Joan Margaret), who worked at both schools at various times in this period. St. Patrick’s just started accepting African American students who applied to the school.

What success looked like

Sister Laurine Haley today with blog post author Sister Emily TeKolste.

Sister Laurine says she knew the moment they had succeeded with their integration efforts. They were on the return trip from an oratorical contest for the middle school students. One of the black students had won the contest, sponsored by the Diocese of Raleigh, so Sister Laurine decided she was going to treat all the students to ice cream. They stopped at Howard Johnson’s. “I said to the children, ‘Now, as a special treat you may order either an ice cream cone or a soft drink, and it’s on me,’” she says. “So we got off the bus, and they all got in line like they knew they should. And the first couple got their soft drinks because it was a beastly hot day. And all of the sudden the whole front of the line turned around like ‘Sister, come here.’ And I thought, ‘Uh huh. I know what’s happened.’ So I went up, and I said ‘What seems to be the problem?’ And the man behind the counter said, ‘There is no problem. I told them that they can all get something here. But, Sister, the white kids can buy it for the black kids, but they have to take it to the bus. They may not stand around here.’ So I said, ‘Do you see this as a problem?’ The man said, ‘Oh, no.’ And the kids all said, ‘Yes, Sister. If everybody can’t be served here, nobody should.’ So the first couple put their things back and the nicest polite kids all turned and said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and they all walked back to the bus without their drinks.”

St. Ann’s and St. Patrick’s Schools both still operate in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Sisters of Providence in Wilson and Burlington, North Carolina, also served their schools during processes of integration. All Sisters of Providence left the Diocese of Raleigh in 1972 over disagreements with Bishop Waters regarding the sisters’ return to contemporary dress following the Second Vatican Council.

Watch for the fall issue of HOPE magazine next month for a listing of schools still in operation that Sisters of Providence founded or ran for many years, such as St. Ann’s and St. Patrick’s in Fayetteville, North Carolina.