Saturday, September 28, 2019

Sr. Clotilde a woman for our times

Black-and-while photo of Sister Anna Clotilde Kohler, SSJ, in her religious habit
Sister Clotilde forged a firm path in the first half of the
20th century. She is remembered for her commitment to
 Christ and to the students she taught. (Photo credit:
Sisters of Saint Joseph, St. Augustine - July 2017 archive)
Finding online archival information on religious sisters who served in pioneer Florida can be challenging. So when resources readily popped up about Sister Anna Clotilde Kohler, SSJ, I took it as a sign from above. I even found two photos of her.

Granted, Sr. Clotilde, as she was known, died in modern times - 1962. She was in her 80s. But she'd spent 65 years as a Sister of St. Joseph in Florida. She dedicated almost 50 of those years to educating African-American children in Ybor City and Fernandina. Segregation was the law for all of those years. Anti-Catholicism was pretty strong for most of the era, too.

But politics and bigotry don't surface in the records I found about Sr. Clotilde. Instead, I learned of her religiosity, steadfastness, and strong personality. The expression on her face in the SSJ photo, shown with this post, speaks of an individuality that religious orders of the time tried to squash. Strength is also seen in an Amelia Island Museum of History photo of her in the 1950s, when she was in Fernandina.

Could a strong will and individualism be why Sr. Clotilde kept being reassigned during her early years? We'll never know. That isn't in the public record. But there are hints that this woman forged her own way when possible.

Sr. Clotilde was born in St. Augustine and donned her religious habit in 1896. That's when she took the name Anna Clotilde. Her birth name was Mary Elizabeth, according to the Sisters of Saint Joseph in St. Augustine. (Click on the SSJ's July 2017 newsletter archive to see where I found that detail and the photo.) In 1901, she landed in Ybor City. That was after she'd already had seven assignments! She soon moved on, again. In 1903, she was sent to St. Benedict the Moor parish school. And there she stayed for more than 40 years.

Michael J. McNally, author of Catholic Parish Life on Florida's West Coast, 1860-1968, cites Sr. Clotilde as "one of the most outstanding mentors of St. Benedict School..." (page 192). He also says she was remembered more for her "commitment to Christ and her students" than for her teaching abilities (192). The SSJ archive, however, says she was known for her teaching. Another source calls her an admired teacher and "a stabilizing influence in the black community" (Jane Quinn, "Nuns in Ybor City: The Sisters of St. Joseph and the Immigrant Community," Tampa Bay History, Spring/Summer 1983).

The sources agree on examples of her dedication. She:
  • every fourth Sunday, led students in a song-filled procession to special pews in church for an integrated Mass
  • formed a St. Joseph Society (boys) and St. Cecilia Society (girls) to help youth grow in Catholic piety
  • built a stage for students and helped them perform dramatic and musical events
Quinn's article says Sr. Clotilde maintained correspondence with many former pupils after she was transferred to St. Peter Claver School in Fernandina. It'd be great to read some of those letters, for they surely reveal more of her personality and shed light on what made her special enough for multiple remembrances. 

McNally, on page 193, posits that her humanity grew from suffering she went through. He writes that, early in her religious life, she was accused of having "a particular friendship." In Catholic religious life, that is a code phrase for a same-sex relationship or attraction. It was a serious accusation and resulted in her being hauled before the bishop. After the bishop heard St. Clotilde's side of the story, he deemed the accusation false.

"This experience of being unjustly accused deepened her human compassion and spiritual life, as she herself later admitted," McNally writes. Along with Sr. Clotilde's letters, I'd like to read any other writings she left behind - especially the memoir the SSJ archive mentions. As McNally says, Sr. Clotilde "had a certain independence of character which many admired" (193).  She was also moral, dedicated to others, and committed to Christ. The kind of leader we are so in need of today.

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