Sister Sandra O. Smithson

Sister Sandra O. Smithson


Born to Life
March 3, 1926
Nashville, Tennessee

June 13, 1954

Born to Eternal Life
May 13, 2022
Alive Hospice
Nashville, Tennessee

Hills of Calvary Memorial Park
Nashville, Tennessee


Sister Sandra attended Catholic Schools founded by St. Katharine Drexel from 1st grade through college: St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, Immaculate Mother Academy, and Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana. She excelled in academics, sports, and peer leadership. After graduating with honors from Xavier University, she was granted a teaching fellowship at Fisk University to work towards a Master’s in Literature. She was recruited to be the first woman to host a talk show on Nashville’s first African-American radio station, WSOK. The show was called, “A Woman Speaks.” Her show featured local, national, and world issues in politics, religion, and general social commentary. Due to listener interest, it grew from a 15-minute fill-in spot to a one-hour feature show that won first place in the Hooper ratings (forerunner of the Gallop Poll and the Neilson Ratings).

In 1954, she answered an internal call to religious life and joined the School Sisters of St. Francis based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

At her passing she had 67 plus years in the religious life working in mission in the United States and Central and South America. In Costa Rica in the early 1960s, as principal of a private school, she initiated a pilot educational project for poor children in the surrounding barrio that led to public school reform for the entire country. That era has been referred to as “the Golden Age of Sister Maria Crucis,” her religious name at the time. In the mid 1960s, she reclaimed her birth name and was then known as “Sister Sandra.” She has served as an administrator, author, publisher, mentor, teacher, lecturer, negotiator, spiritual leader, and remained a visionary.

In 1992, Sister Sandra founded Project Reflect, a nonprofit organization in Nashville whose mission is “transforming communities through education and policy reform.” Sister Sandra was its Executive Director from 1992 through 2014. The organization focuses on reading literacy, and in 2000 translated its Reading Success program into computer software, Reading Success in the Itty Bitty City. Then in 2002 Sister Sandra was a major influencer in passing the first charter school legislation for the State of Tennessee. Under the new law, in August 2003 Project Reflect opened Middle Tennessee’s first free, public charter school, Smithson Craighead Academy (SCA) elementary school, which serves primarily African-American and Latinx children from low-income families.

After her retirement as Executive Director of Project Reflect, she continued to work toward excellence in public education for grades K-12 in Tennessee, with a focus on literacy in grades K-4. She was a lifetime board member of Project Reflect. Additionally, she worked with the Metro Nashville Public Schools’ board and Tennessee State administrators to support and improve public schools. Her desire was that all schools – traditional public, public charter, and private – meet standards of excellence to produce graduates adequately prepared for college, careers, and life.

In recent years, Sister Sandra published several books, many available on with proceeds going to help fund the (St. Katharine) Drexel Scholarship at Father Ryan High School for academically promising African-American students from low-income families.

Join Us in Remembering
Sister Sandra

We encourage you to share your loving memories of Sister’s life and ministry using the online form on this page. Your submission will be reviewed by the community and posted to this page promptly.


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Memories from Loved Ones, Friends & Colleagues

I met Sr. Maria Crucis when we both worked at St. Clare in Costa Rica in the 1960s. Eventually, she became the principal and changed her name back to Sandra. As a principal she was always supportive of teachers’ creativity and always encouraged me. I was then in my 20s and learned a lot from her approach to young women’s education, particularly those who were gifted but problematic. In the 70s I visited her in Milwaukee. I was very sad to learn of her death. She was a source of inspiration.

~ Oliva M. Espín