A Friendship Between the Lines

Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet | Flannery O'Connor


A Conversation with Sister Loretta Costa on her friendship with Flannery O'Connor, one of the great American short story writers.

by Jenny Beatrice

*Originally printed in 2012 Fall/Winter Connections magazine. Reposted/updated 6/11/18.

To the literary world, Flannery O’Connor is one of the greatest American short story writers of the 20th century, weaving haunting tales of spirituality and the Southern way.

To the residents of Milledgeville, Ga., Flannery O’Connor was an eccentric, living with an overprotective mother and a muster of peacocks on Andalusia, the family farm.

To Sister Loretta Costa, Mary Flannery O’Connor was a dear friend whose disease took her away far too soon.

I sat down with Sister Loretta to learn about her friend­ship with the famous author and the real woman behind the literary legacy.

You were not the first Sister of St. Joseph in Flannery’s life.
Flannery was connected to the sisters as a child. In the 1930s, she attended our Sacred Heart elementary school in Savannah. The school was a number of miles from where she lived so her wealthy cousin Katie Semmes had her chauffeured to school in an electric car. Katie was always generous to the sisters and later bought what became our provincial house in Georgia.

How did you meet Flannery?
I first met Flannery when I was in seventh grade. I went to boarding school in Macon with her cousin, Betty Cline, my good friend and tennis buddy. Flannery came from Milledgeville to visit her cousin at school and Betty asked me to come into the parlor and meet her. My first impression was that Flannery was a very proper girl.

And you became life-long friends?
No, that was the end of my association for many, many years. Flannery finished grade and high school in Milledgeville. She went to the University of Iowa and to the artists’ colony in New York. Then the lupus she inherited from her father raised its ugly head. I don’t think she ever intended to go back home, but she knew she didn’t have a choice.

So how did you reconnect?
Flannery and I became reacquainted in 1954 when I was a Sister of St. Joseph sent to Milledgeville to teach first and second grades and give piano lessons after school and on Saturdays.

One day, Flannery came in looking to take lessons. She said, “We have a piano in the parlor that is going to waste.” So she came every Thursday and was my last student of the day. This was nice because often [her mother] Miss Regina did the weekly shopping while Flannery had her lesson and often took longer than the length of the lesson. So Flannery and I visited. This, in retrospect, was precious time.

You may have been her piano teacher, but she trusted your writing skills, too.
One day she arrived with a brief case and said she needed a big favor. Her proof­reader was sick and she had a deadline to meet. I proofread “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” What a revelation!

I also read “Everything that Rises Must Converge” and “The Artificial Nigger.” I feel so honored to have done that. I can still see myself sitting up in bed with my lamp. Little did I know…

Which of her stories is your favorite?
My favorite is “Everything that Rises.” I did not like “The Artificial Nigger”—very dark writing. I asked her about it and she said, “That is how I see life,” and I do think she wrote about life as she saw it.

How do you interpret “life as she saw it” being that she lived a reclusive lifestyle?
Some people say Flannery was a mystic. She wasn’t a mystic. She was an eccentric because of the the way she was raised. I think she was a recluse because the way her mother, Miss Regina, trained her to be removed from the masses. Regina was well named. She was queenly! She would have wrapped Flannery in cotton to keep her safe from everything.

And in her writing?
In a way, I think she explored. We do it normally and naturally. I think she did it to stay sane. She wrote out of her experience, whether it was hers or someone else’s. People in town didn’t like to interact with her as they didn’t want to show up in one of her stories!

How did Flannery’s battle with lupus further isolate her?
Flannery was beautiful, but the disease ravaged her. Her hands were always wet and she used to apologize for dirtying the piano keys. They had to turn a first-floor parlor into her bedroom when she couldn’t climb the stairs. She almost lived like a hermit. She hated it. Her disease made her really know about our mortality.

But her disease did not keep her from writing.
She used a manual typewriter. She never had an electric typewriter or a TV. She would sit at the typewriter three hours in the morning and in the evening, even if she didn’t write a word. She was a very disciplined, prolific writer.

Her writings are steeped in reli­gious themes. What can you tell us about her spirituality?
Flannery was a very spiritual woman. A Catholic growing up in the Baptist South, she was very traditional. She loved the church but hated the changes. She always loved her Catholic faith and it was part and parcel of who she was.

Yet her gothic stories were far from traditional, especially consid­ering the time and place.
Flannery was not afraid to say what she thought and she had a raw sense of humor.

You cannot talk about Flannery without talking about Andalusia, the family farm and the birds she raised.
Andalusia was a working dairy farm. In fact, the family hosted displaced persons after World War II and also had a black family living and working on the farm. I can still see Miss Regina riding a mule in her straw hat, which she continued to wear until the day she died.

Now Flannery collected all kinds of birds. She especially loved peacocks and is well known for raising them. She called them “the all-seeing eye of God.” They were magnificent. She loved it when children came to the farm to see them.

How did you keep in touch with her over the years?
We stayed friends and wrote letters back and forth. My biggest regret is that I didn’t save the letters.

When did you last see Flannery?
The last time I saw her was May 1964. She was not well. I can still see her on the crutches waving goodbye with the peacocks all around her. She died in August. She was 39 years old.

How do you feel when you look back on your friendship?
She left us a wonderful legacy in her writing, but my relationship with her is really my story. Flannery was a big part of my life. I treasure that. I feel very blessed and very privileged to have known her and to say she was my friend.


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