By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published November 2, 2006
“May He be so pleased with His work in your soul, and through you in others, that He will take infinite pride in His accomplishment.” – St. Katharine Drexel
Good fruit has been easy picking at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, where the first gardener is now a known saint and one to have walked in the Atlanta Archdiocese in recent years. Among the historic parishes of the archdiocese, Our Lady of Lourdes Church was established in 1912 as a black Catholic mission with funds from then Mother Katharine Drexel, who also opened and supported Our Lady of Lourdes School that same year. In 2000, the foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament became St. Katharine Drexel, a saint a handful of Atlantans still remember meeting.
While Nettie Singleton says she doesn’t move as well as she used to, the 97-year-old still gets around. This parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes can be found Sundays at her church home, a place she has known since about 1919 when she attended the parish’s elementary school.
“The sisters were not overly strict, but we had to obey the rules,” Singleton recalled.
She remains one of a small number of Georgians who, in her childhood, met “Mother Drexel,” whose mission was to minister to Native Americans and those of African-American descent starting in 1891, when she made vows as a Religious.
The sisters at Our Lady of Lourdes School often would ask students to help with cleaning the convent, Singleton explained.
“I had never been on my knees with a rag and a bucket before,” she confided, adding that she later opted to “use a mop.” On one particular day she was asked to accompany the sisters to the train station to fetch Mother Drexel and other visiting sisters.
“One of my lucky moments was to carry one of her bags.”
She described the elderly nun, who passed away in 1955, as “a little, dried-up woman like me now,” she said with a chuckle, adding that the sister was small in stature.
“The nuns would prepare us (at school) and tell us to wear our best outfits, put on our best smiles and use our best manners. … (Mother Drexel) would go up and down the aisles, speaking to the students and looking at the work on your desk. I was nervous because I knew we were in the presence of high dignity.”
Born into a Methodist family, Singleton quickly took to the Catholic faith.
“I fell in love with the church.”
Her favorite sister was her third-grade teacher Sister Evangelista. “I hung around (the sisters). I always loved being with them. I had to go to the Methodist Church for Sunday school, but in the afternoon I would get a few friends of mine and go to Benediction. They always had little treats, which was one of the reasons.”
Sister Evangelista noticed the young girl’s interest in the Catholic faith.
“Sister would say, ‘why aren’t you Catholic?’ because I loved to be in the church. But I couldn’t. Then sister would share a saying, ‘When the bird’s wings are strong enough, he’ll fly away.’… I did fly, but I was a bit older.”
In 1933 Singleton joined the Catholic Church with instruction from the sisters and the parish priest, Father Francis Weiss of the Society of African Missions who staffed Our Lady of Lourdes then.
“My mother was mad,” Singleton recalled, “so she didn’t come.”
But her mother came to like the parish priest, Father Weiss, “a great theologian.”
“He would sit on his porch … and invite you to come on up and rock awhile.”
Becoming Catholic did not insulate her from those who disapproved and verbally would “jump on me.”
“I didn’t leave my church,” she would explain, “I chose the church I wanted. … The Catholic faith was something I felt good about from pre-school. There was something that I was drawn towards, that I wanted.”
After graduating from the eighth grade, a temporary summer job working for the Marists at Sacred Heart Church in Atlanta opened up and later became a full-time job for a number of years. Eventually she finished high school by attending evening classes so that she could help support her family. “I answered the phone, served meals and kept the parlor clean. I loved being up there. … There were so many Masses, and I loved seeing the people come and go.”
With a host of family and friends around, Singleton has found plenty of opportunities to do what comes naturally. “What I love is taking care of others,” she said, whether it was caring for her daughter and grandchildren or children of friends and the sisters who remained at Our Lady of Lourdes.
“When the nuns struggled … the (school) auxiliary organized parents to help make things easier for the nuns. In later years our group raised money to buy a freezer and had a party to stock it.”
Singleton recalled an occasion when a friend’s child, who was attending Our Lady of Lourdes School, took instructions to become Catholic from the sisters who thought that the girl’s mother, a Methodist, knew about it.
“I was at choir practice, and one of the sisters said, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that Mary will be receiving her first Communion?’”
Later, when the girl’s concerned mother asked her why she was receiving instructions, she replied, “Well, Nettie went to the Methodist Church and then to the Catholic Church.”
Years later the girl died, but not before telling Singleton that her desire to be Catholic wouldn’t have happened “if it hadn’t been for you.”
While she has experienced heartache, not all of Singleton’s stories are sad. “I had a friend who was really sick. She said to me, ‘I can die in peace if you promise me you’ll marry my husband and take care of the children.’ … I told her, ‘you better live and take care of them yourself.’ They had four children then. Later they had three more.”
Now Singleton spends much of her time sitting and observing what comes before her.
“I used to do the rosary, but I can’t so much anymore,” she said.
Asked if perhaps she is a living prayer, she answered, “I hope so.”
Father Ricardo Bailey, parochial vicar at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta and a more recent graduate of Our Lady of Lourdes School, recalled being a student there and discussing Mother Drexel “about as much as we talked about Martin Luther King.” The school closed in 2001 due to financial hardships, and students from the area now attend St. Peter Claver Regional School in Decatur.
“Mother Drexel was canonized for her great Christian witness and courage during the unfortunate historical time of segregation and for her love of people who were marginalized by the whole of society—those of African-American descent and Native Americans.”
Her spirit is deeply entrenched in the parish. Anyone who attended the school or is a member of the parish truly understands and can appreciate the mission of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament who arrived in Atlanta during the turmoil of segregation, Father Bailey said.
“At that time … people were very impressed at the (sisters’) courage. If you were a white person down here in the white South, and a Catholic (facing up to) segregation, white people thought you were crazy, stupid. … (The sisters) truly understood the challenge of evangelization. Our Lord Jesus was rejected … but he still preached the Gospel in season and out of season. That’s how you win converts. It’s not enough to say you’re a Christian; you have to live it,” he continued. “People of African-American descent saw this religious community working in the black community while being ostracized by society and even by some in the church.”
This is Catholicism’s “true way of life.”
“People saw the reality that the Jesus they preached about was the Jesus lived and they (the marginalized) could identify with that.”
Father Bailey reflected on the responsibility each person has to evangelize.
“People have to be willing to live Jesus Christ. We must accept that people are who they are—that we are all works in progress who fall way short of God’s perfection—but who are still not afraid to go out into society and do what Jesus calls us to do. Not to sit down but to know and (perform) the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Doors open. The reason is that they understand and see Jesus in you.”
Getting back to the basics is what awakens people’s faith lives, Father Bailey explained. The evidence of this is seen in the example set by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament years ago.
“The Nettie Singletons of this world represent the best the Lord has to offer through the (local) church, throughout the church universal. She’s one pillar of the church who understands what it is to struggle, who understands what it is to sacrifice, who understands rejection, but more importantly who understands the love and compassion of Jesus because of her witness.”
Many parishioners at Lourdes can appreciate the richness and power present in the Our Lady of Lourdes community and through the sacraments. “It’s the design of God who let St. Katharine Drexel walk on that property and plant a seed so that we could be holy as well. Nettie Singleton is a modern-day fruit of St. Katharine Drexel. Nettie Singleton’s life encourages us all to strive to live holy lives every single day.”