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Monday, August 17, 2015

St. Joseph's School: a lesson in reverse integration

Asian nun with pupil, Joan Moses, at St. Joseph's School
The Salvatorian Sisters, Society of the Divine Savior, opened the first Saint Joseph School on September 4, 1956 in two rooms of the mission house in Huntsville, Al. St. Joseph’s Mission was founded to serve the African American community of Madison County..

Merry-go-round on school playground before integration
St. Joseph's School holds the distinction of being the first elementary school to integrate in the state of Alabama quietly and peacefully on September 3, 1963 when twelve white students submitted applications and were accepted for admission. The event is noted not only for the initial integration of elementary schools in Alabama but also for its “reverse” integration nature. In 1965, St. Joseph's Mission was fully integrated in all classrooms. 

Here are some photos I took with my Girl Scout camera while a student at St. Joseph's before and after integration and a bio of the priest behind the historical integration.

Some of my closest friends, classmates, and neighbors
Father Mark Sterbenz, S.D.S., pastor and priest of St. Joseph’s Mission from 1961 – 1967, said the "reverse integration" set a precedent for others to follow. "All we're doing is teaching religion to whites, to Negroes, to anyone who comes," said Father Mark who was sued for integrating St. Joseph's School. "Religion along with education... that’s the reason it works.”

Father Mark outside school with two pupils in uniforms
According to the Society of the Divine Savior Obituatries website, Father Mark Sterbenz (John LeRoy) was born on October 1, 1913, in Baraga, Mich. After the first year of high school in his hometown, he transferred to Salvatorian Seminary in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin, where he completed his high school studies and the first two years of college. He entered the Novitiate there in 1933, and he made his profession of vows on September 8, 1934. After completing college in St. Nazianz, he went to Catholic University in Washington, DC, where he finished his studies for the priesthood. He was ordained on May 30, 1939, in the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. 

Fr. Mark ministered in the Publishing Department in St. Nazianz, learning the procedures and skills of fund-raising. He was one of the founding members of Mother Mary Mission in Phenix City, Alabama. He later worked in the Salvatorian Mission House in Elkton, Maryland, where he also served as Superior of the community and procurator. 

In 1961, he returned to Alabama, this time to St. Joseph’s Parish in Huntsville, as pastor of the parish and Superior of the community. The school was integrated in 1963. 

Photo of boys in my class...Jose, Kirk, David, Condredge, and Earnest I remember distinctly.
He became pastor of St. Catherine’s Parish in McMinnville, Tennessee; and later of St. Benedict’s Parish in Columbus, Georgia, where he also served as chaplain in the local regional hospital, the state correctional institution, and Fort Benning Army Base. 

Fr. Mark semi-retired in 1985, and remained in the Columbus area, serving as chaplain in two local hospitals, until a few months before his death. Having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, he was admitted to the hospice of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he died on August 26, 1993. He was buried in the community cemetery in St. Nazianz. 

Fr. Mark is remembered as a caring priest with genial good humor, great energy and vitality, and selfless dedication to his ministries, which many times began with almost nothing, and grew steady and strong through his skills in fund-raising and development.

1 comment:

  1. Earnest says: Wow!
    Tomi this is like going back in time. Thank you for sharing such awesome memories.
    Very nicely written.


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