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Family's bad fortunes propelled Thomas to better life

July 07, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

Floyd Adams, an old friend of Mr. Thomas' who is now a Savannah alderman and editor of the black-oriented weekly newspaper, recalled of Mr. Anderson, "He was always standing erect, a smile on his face, but outspoken when he had to be. On the East side, everybody looked up to him for advice."

The one thing Mr. Anderson was most serious about was his religion, and he didn't take kindly to friends who kidded him about being a Catholic adrift in an ocean of Baptists.

This meant that Mr. Thomas and his brother, who hadn't been particularly enthusiastic about school before, were soon enrolled Catholic school, with its tough new universe of rules and discipline.

First, there were the uniforms. Then came the regimented politeness.

"When the sister came into the classroom, you stood up and said, 'Good morning, Sister Virgilius,' and when she left you stood and said, 'Good afternoon, Sister Virgilius,' " recalled Roy Allen, a classmate of Mr. Thomas' at both St. Benedict's Elementary School and St. Pius High School, and now a Democratic state senator in the Georgia Legislature.

Missing Mass meant two vigorous raps across an open palm with a big stick. But blowing a question on the rote religious instruction of the Baltimore catechism meant closing up the palms for two strikes across the knuckles. "And if you got caught eating meat on Friday," Mr. Allen said, "that was a whipping."

Besides Mass, there were other services and devotionals. There was the rosary to say each day. Confessions. Altar boy duty.

"These were massive doses of Catholicism," Mr. Allen said. "Father Cuddy would come around two or three times every year and say, 'OK, who wants to be a priest?' And when you're 14, love and sex aren't very high up on your agenda, so we were pretty gung-ho."

For Mr. Thomas, the dosages only increased when he got home for the day. "His grandfather was like an extension of the school, the church and the rectory," Mr. Allen said.

But with all the discipline came learning, and with the lessons of the books came lessons of life, driven home by the nuns.

"The nuns had a tremendous influence on him, like all of us," said Mr. Adams. "They always encouraged us to get out of the South, to improve ourselves academically so we could go to a Northern college and get out."

"Our interest was in preparing these kids to lead their lives," said Sister Virgilius Reidy, now retired. "But it's not like these were a bunch of hopeless creatures."

The nuns may have made their lessons all the more convincing making some sacrifices of their own.

Savannah and other Southern cities at that time were a focus of one of the great social missions of the Catholic Church: to educate the black children of the segregated South. Assigned to that mission were the sisters of the Franciscan order. The result was classrooms full of black children, speaking in the lilting tones of the Deep South, taught by austerely dressed sisters whose voices rang out in the rich brogue of Ireland.

Sister Virgilius is one of the nuns mentioned the most by Mr. Thomas' fellow students. She left her home in Ireland in 1931 for three years of instruction in Rome, then left for 18 years of teaching Italian-Americans in Brooklyn until the call went out for help in the South. Off to Savannah she went, housed at the Franciscan convent in the heart of East Savannah's black community.

Mr. Allen remembers once boarding a bus with his class and hearing the driver tell the white sister that even though the children had to sit in the back, she could sit up front. "The sister said, 'No, I won't. I'll sit with my children,' " he recalled.

But he always suspected that the sacrifices of the sisters went deeper than their $50-a-month salaries and a few rides in the back of a bus, and a few years ago he confirmed as much in conversations with some of his old teachers.

The problem came from tension that lay just below the surface between the Franciscans and the Sisters of Mercy, who taught white children at Savannah's St. Vincent's School, he said.

"The Franciscans were always quietly referred to as 'the nigger nuns,' " he said. "So, they really cast their lot with these kids."

Sister Virgilius played down her role. "We knew how to play our cards," she said. "When you're in religious life, you have to leave everything in the hands of God."

When Southern schools began to integrate, the mission lost its purpose, and today the Franciscans are an order of aging nuns. Many of the older ones, such as Sister Virgilius, live in an order nursing home in Tenafly, N.J.

In Savannah, the building that used to be the Franciscan convent is now a halfway house for alcoholics, while the parish of St. Benedict the Moor no longer runs an elementary school. The main community work of the parish now is its weekly soup kitchen and its every-Thursday handout of 65 bags of groceries.

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