Josephine Sferrella, January 31st, 2017
WW: Hello, today is January 31, 2017, my name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project, I’m in Monroe, Michigan and I am sitting down with—
JS: Sister Josephine Sferrella.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
JS: I appreciate what you are doing. I think it is marvelous, that 1967 was sort of a benchmark, a culmination of many things of the city of Detroit. I was at Holy Trinity, which is not too far from Twelfth Street, and then later taught in Boniface which is right on Twelfth, near seventy-five. That Sunday morning we knew nothing about it, but as a group, because we have been so tired working hard in the inner-city, we decided to treat ourselves and we were going to go out to Meadowbrook and watch the concert and have a lunch there and we did. We came back, it must have been about three o’clock, three thirty, and we got to the city borders and we were stopped by a jeep with three or four soldiers in it. And we didn’t know what was happening and we looked at each other curious at first and the a little bit concerned, and the soldiers wanted to know— first of all, they said, You can’t come through. So we said, But we live— how we can get to our home. So he asked us where we were going and we told him. So he said, “We have to escort you, because we had some civil disturbances in this area today.” So we followed him to Holy Trinity, we parked our car, and he said to us, “Now lock the car very well, and when you go into the house make sure that you are not standing near a window or where a light can indicate from the outside that you are there. Just stay clear of windows, we don’t know who maybe around and we want to make sure you are safe.” So that was the Sunday. Then on Monday we began to work with Lou Murphy at what they call the Dorothy Day workhouse, and they cooked the soup and the meat and we served them to all the homeless in the area, and it was interesting and sort of sad and pathetic. And we had to be very careful because the homeless men were trying to steal the Sternos, the little can of Sterno we had. So we did that several days to make sure that they were fed. The soldiers were on the lookout for us every day, and we go to Boniface, which is not quite a mile west of Trinity, they would be parked at different areas, so that we knew we were safe going back and forth. I know that we were in fear, we really weren’t sure what was going on but then we read about it and people called us. It was summertime so the sisters were not really working on the mission, but were living there and going to school at Wayne State, University of Detroit, and so we were assigned at different places.
But I can recall, I think it was either that Monday or Tuesday, it didn’t dawned at me how serious it was until this one morning I heard this big rumbling sound and I looked out my bedroom window and here comes an actual tank. I had never, never, seen one up that close, with a gun on a turret, the soldier that was seen on it, he saw me on a window and he saluted me. But at that moment I really was frightened. It dawned on me that this was really serious business, and I could not believe that here in the sixties in Detroit, the United States, that we had tanks on our ordinary streets, you know, and soldiers were on them. So it made me very much aware of the situation around. I knew there was a great problem with the police department because, working with my students at Boniface and Trinity, we always had a hard time with our black students. If they were out of school, like if they were at mass serving mass, they come over late to school, but if the cops saw them, they would stop them, and they would want to arrest them because they were supposed to be in school and they would not take their word from them. And I remember that I called the city, and they told me to make sure I took the number of the police numbers badge and let them know, and they would take care of it, and I did. It was the only way I could stop the police officers from sort of verbally abusing some of our kids just because they were black.
So I knew we were in a situation that was not— it was not great. It was not good. And I felt sorry for the mayor, Cavanagh, because he was just beginning in his term. As far as the rest of the riot situation, I felt badly, that it took the city many, many years to even help clean up some of the wooden buildings, some of those that were— I had a dear parishioner who had a grocery store on a corner of Twelfth— I think it was near Atkins— and it was burned to the ground. But that made me very much aware, threw me more into the civil process, and to the needs of the city than I had ever been before. But, I sure do not want to go through that again.
WW: Did it change the way you looked at the city?
JS: Yes, it did. I have always loved Detroit; I spent quite a few years there. As a congregation one of our directives is to work with the city in whatever way we can. And so we have been doing that. And early on before the early sixties— well I’d say the seventies— we had many, many schools in Detroit. Our congregation had more schools than any other group. So we really were committed to the city. I know it changed my fact that I needed to get more involved.
WW: Did you become uneasy in the city afterwards? Did you still feel comfortable walking around?
JS: I felt comfortable, not after, not during that week because the soldiers were around and the snipers were still around. But after that, I have never had any fear of walking the streets of Boniface or Holy Trinity. First of all, the people knew me, they knew we were sisters, they knew me by name. And we would help them, when they needed it, and they knew we took care of them. So, I felt that they would save us, they would protect us, they wouldn’t do anything against us now. Maybe I was naïve at that time, but I may find it a little hard now after so many years away from it, and not being familiar with it. But at the time I had no fear, other than that first meeting with that unbelievable tank. That really— it just jolted me.
WW: Is there anything else you would like to share?
JS: No, again I want to thank you for doing this, I think this is important to get people’s I would hope you would be able to find some of the people who were hurt by the riots. Only they can really tell you what their actual experience. They lost their homes, they lost their clothes, and some of them lost their own sons and daughters, I mean there were over 40 that were killed in that riot. So, I am very happy, and I’m thrilled and privileged even though I don’t have very much to say. I’m very happy and thrilled to be a part of it, and I wish you great luck on it.
WW: Thank you so much.