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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

326: When it has been difficult to persevere, my faith has made a difference

Day 326: Friday, February 5th 2021

When it has been difficult to persevere, my faith has made a difference.

As a young student attending an all Black Catholic school in Memphis, scientist Sheila Stiles Jewell looked forward to going to the movies with her classmates. They would walk the three blocks to the theater in a line of 2 by 2 students supervised (protected) by the nuns - all of whom were white.

St. Augustine school and parish is one of the two historically African American parishes in the Diocese of Memphis. The school was located across from LeMoyne Gardens a segregated public housing complex. Sheila felt at home there, calling the complex "a village where people lived their lives, raised their children, watched over the youngsters and strove to raise themselves up.

"Going to the theater was a chance for us to sit on the floor level - not the balcony which, at the time, was reserved for people of color."

Sheila had big dreams, and from an early age fell in love with science. She felt one with nature weaving clover and catching bumblebees, not realizing that she was really feeding her curiosity for science and the natural world.

(Memphis Public Housing)

"Growing up in the South did not keep us from striving to keep us from becoming somebody. My mother was my first hero. She told me I could be anybody I chose to be. We couldn’t always realize our dreams because of segregation, but that did not keep us from striving to be somebody,”

Our community was a humble beginning for all of us. We played all the childhood games, tag, jump rope, hide and seek. It was my village and everyone took care of all of us.

During the days of segregation, the Catholic Church recruited her family, living at Lemoyne Gardens at the time, to receive a Catholic education. It was a noble act that she credits with much of her success today.

Working into her 70s, Jewell is a research geneticist at the U.S. NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Milford, Connecticut. NOAA Fisheries is an office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Science has made my faith stronger,” she said. “The DNA structure is amazing. It is beautiful and is evidence of what God can do and has done. Look around you, it is just wonderful!”

“My faith has been an important part of how I persisted and persevered. I can’t imagine how I could have done it without my faith,” she said. Jewell still comes home often to be with family and together they attend Mass at St. Augustine Church in South Memphis.

She remembers the times as a child in the segregated South, when she went to Mass at a white church, she had to stand in the back, sit in the balcony at the movies, and drink out of separate drinking fountains.

Jewell studied science at Father Bertrand High School, where she was valedictorian. It was there that Sister Mary Kilian, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, encouraged her to go to college and major in biology.

She attended Xavier University in New Orleans, the only historically Black Catholic university in the U.S., and then accepted an internship in Milford. She was apprehensive about leaving all she knew.

That summer, her advisers convinced her to go on a 30-hour Greyhound bus ride to pursue new opportunities. Because she was Black, she rode in the back of the bus and even though the North was not officially segregated like Memphis at the time, there was nowhere to stay.

Housing was not open to Blacks in the 1960s. Her advisers found a family for her to stay with. She was the first permanent African American female employee in the Department of Interior in the Milford marine biological laboratory, where she has had a 56-year career and is still working today.

“I had a passion for genetics. Early in my career, there were no role models in this male-dominated field,” she said. She studies shellfish, such as oysters, clams, scallops, and mussels, and working on restoring this population through genetics and breeding for better survival and growth.

Women’s rights and civil rights have helped and brought a lot of improvement, though there are still some barriers today, she said.

She loves working with young people, “reaching out and reaching back,” she said. “If you have a dream, follow it, do what it takes, don’t be discouraged, don’t give up.”

Jewell was a trailblazer. This past fall she was inducted into the Memphis Catholic High School Hall of Fame.

(St. Augustine Parish, Memphis)

For so many years, she drew on her faith. “If it were not for my faith, I would not have been as successful as I have been. God has been beside me throughout this journey. I could not have made this journey alone. I am so thankful for my faith, my family, and my friends.” When it has been difficult to persevere, “my faith has made a difference,” she added.

Excerpts from Story Corps and from Karen Pulfer Focht



Striving is life, yet life is striving;

I fight to live, yet live to fight;

The vital urge is in my driving,

Yet I must drive with all my might:

Each day a battle, and the fray

Stoutly renewed the coming day.

A am myself - yet when I strive

I build a self that's truer, higher;

I keep my bit of God alive

And forgive me in heroic fire:

What if my goal I never gain -

Better to toil than to attain.

It is not what I do or make,

It is the travail of my trying;

The aim, the effort and the ache

Is in the end my glorifying:

Through triumph I may never see,

The will to win is victory.

Striving is strength: with all that's in me

I will not falter in the fray;

And though no shining crown it win me,

I'll fight unto my latest day:

Strive on! - and though I win no place,

Uphold the spirit of the race.

Behold yon peaks that mock my climbing. . . .

I peer from out the dusty plain;

Dark falls, the mission bells are chiming

As on to starry heights I strain;

Despite the night up, up I plod

To gain the golden meads of God.

- by Robert William Service


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