We were delighted to interview Barbara Mattick about her new book Teaching in Black and White: The Sisters of St. Joseph in the American South (CUA Press, 2022). Mattick is a retired public historian who has worked for the state of Florida.
Q: How did you come across the story of the Sisters of St. Joseph in the first place? What drew you to study them further?
A: I was searching for a dissertation topic and had explored several topics that did not pan out. My thesis for my Master’s Degree in history at Florida State University had been about the 1841 yellow fever epidemic in Tallahassee, Florida. I decided I would just go back to yellow fever, focusing on the much bigger epidemic that took place in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1888. At the time, I was taking two seminars. The first seminar was on social history, so my topic for that class was the Jacksonville epidemic. The other seminar was in women’s history, something I had never studied before; it did not exist when I was doing my undergraduate work. Once again, I needed a paper topic. In order to make the most of my time, I looked for something related to women who had some involvement with the Jacksonville epidemic. The women I found were the Sisters of St. Joseph. My day job at the time was with the Florida Department of State, Bureau of Historic Preservation, and included overseeing the National Register of Historic Places Program for the State of Florida. A colleague who was a private consultant told me he had been a student of the Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Augustine, and offered to introduce me to them. It was through that introduction that I found out about the letters that the French sisters who came in 1866 sent back to their motherhouse in Le Puy, France. In light of the new things I was learning in the women’s history course, I found the sisters much more intriguing than yellow fever, and decided to make them the topic of my dissertation. The dissertation was later reshaped into Teaching in Black and White: The Sisters of St. Joseph in the American South.
Q: When the sisters came to St. Augustine in 1866, they were immigrants entering the US fresh out of the Civil War. How did their “outsider” status play a role in those early years, for better or for worse?
A: Early on, being immigrants gave the sisters a great advantage in being accepted by the people of St. Augustine. The sisters were not only immigrants, they were French immigrants. According to one of the sisters, the people of St. Augustine thought all things French were wonderful. Bishop Verot, one of the few bishops to speak up for the Confederacy during the Civil War, was also French; he grew up in Le Puy, and knew the Sisters of St. Joseph well. Being immigrants also meant that they were not Yankees, unlike the American Missionary Association’s “heretical” missionaries from New England, who were despised by the citizens of St. Augustine and Savannah. On the other hand, the early sisters’ lack of proficiency in English delayed their ability to be effective in teaching academic subjects in the first couple of years. The AMA missionaries, who came during the Civil War, had a huge advantage over the sisters. Furthermore, they received financial support from the government, whereas the sisters had to support themselves. As immigrants, the sisters were not familiar with American culture and history, but that lack of understanding also meant that they were not hindered by baggage associated with the Civil War and negative attitudes about black people. The sisters’ immigrant status, therefore, presented them with a mix of both bad and good. Ultimately, their conduct and service to everyone, both Protestant and Catholic, rich and poor, black and white, won them over to the general public, and they came to be highly respected.
Q: Teaching in Black and White embraces the intersectionality of its topic, taking into account religion, race, gender, nationality, and larger sociopolitical contexts that played a role in the lives of the Sisters of St. Joseph. How did you retain focus in each chapter with so many aspects of the situation constantly begging for attention?
A: I think the best answer to this question is to say that I followed the chronology of the events. Each chapter can stand alone, but at the same time they build upon each other. The stories included in each chapter benefitted from a wealth of primary material that was available, such as newspapers, sisters’ and bishops’ letters, and government documents; the resources pretty much provided the narrative. This was especially true for the sisters, who, through their writings, largely told their own story. I attempted to put myself into the circumstances, and then tried to provide contextual information, addressing questions I thought the readers might have. In the case of the arrest of the sisters, I asked questions that I wondered about, and came to the conclusion that the arrest was set up by the bishop to bring about a test case.
Q: What do you hope we can learn from continuing to fill this scholarship gap about Catholicism in the South during Reconstruction and beyond?
A: I hope that Teaching in Black and White will give Catholics and Protestants a better understanding of each other, and everyone a greater appreciation of how much Catholics have influenced our culture, not only in the South, but also nationally. I also hope it will provide a broader view of women religious that will counter some of the stereotypes often applied to women religious, such as being knuckle-wrapping teachers, or naïve, simple-minded women who could not make it in the regular world. I tried to capture their personalities; they were not one-dimensional. More work could be done to explore the personal lives of these sisters and their responses to what they encountered in America, if letters they wrote home to their families and friends in France can be found. Their bishops’ correspondence, if available, would also be enlightening.