ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla — This weekend is Juneteenth National Independence Day, which celebrates the end of slavery in the United States.
When emancipation was announced in the United States, Black children needed education. Seeing the need, a group of nuns from France crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
The Sisters of St. Joseph was a small group of women, some who had to learn English themselves, came to north Florida in 1865.
"The Bishop invited them here to teach the newly freed slaves how to read and write," Thomas Jackson of St. Augustine said. He was taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph in the 1950s and 1960s.
Historian David Nolan said, "They came to serve and educate the black community in St. Augustine."
The book, "Beyond the Call", tells the story of the Sisters of St. Joseph. It includes letters from the original sisters who worked in St. Augustine in the mid 1860s.
Not everyone welcomed sisters, and the muggy, hot climate was challenging compared to what they knew in France. But they served.
From the 1860s to the 1960s, the Sisters of St. Joseph taught Black children in schools for only Black students. In the early 20th century, they eventually taught in a three-story building on what is now Martin Luther King Street. It was the St. Benedict the Moore school in the Lincolnville neighborhood of St. Augustine.
Sister Kathleen Carr, who is the General Superior of the Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Augustine, said, "Our sisters ran this school and they were the only ones who ran this school."
Then integration happened, and the St. Benedict the Moore school closed. It is still closed, and it is literally being held up with metal beams.
However, the Sisters of St. Joseph have plans to turn this crumbling building into a community center, providing education and job training.
Sister Stephanie Flynn said, "We want to work with young single mothers who are struggling, who have chosen life, want to foster life, but because of the responsibilities to their children, cannot further their own education or skills.
The Sisters of St. Joseph recently applied for a state grant for $869,000. They just learned that is has been approved. So that means they have raised $2 million for the restoration of this building. They need $75,000 more.
"It’s not just about renovating an old building. It’s about renovating the lives of these women," Carr said.
Work started months ago on the old school building. Now scaffolding is up inside, and the old bricks are getting re-enforced. The work is returning the building to its original mission, just like the nuns feel they are.
It's continuing the mission the Sisters of St. Joseph started after emancipation.