Oct 1962 1963 July 1964 Jan-Feb 1965 Mar 1965 Aug 1965 Dec 1965
Vatican Council II starts Alabama Voting Rights Campaign starts U.S. Civil Rights Act is signed into law Black voters in Selma appear at Dallas County courthouse for registration "Bloody Sunday"
Religious leaders come  to Selma
Selma to Montgomery march
U.S. Voting Rights Act passes Vatican Council II

Franciscan Sisters of Mary

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Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change


The Franciscan Sisters of Mary derive their mission from their founder, Mary Odilia Berger and her companions who came from Germany to St. Louis "determined to live a consecrated life, to become self-supporting, and to help those in need."

The sisters cared for the sick in their homes, sheltered single mothers-to-be, protected working women, and embraced the care of orphans.  These sisters, who became known as the Sisters of St. Mary, later broke ground for the first of many hospitals in St. Louis.  

March 7, 1965:

The medical librarian at St. Mary's Infirmary, Sister Mary Antona (Antona Ebo) heard from her office staff about Bloody Sunday. 

They had seen, on national television, state troopers beating unarmed Black citizens in Selma, Alabama.  On Monday, Rev. Martin Luther King sent out a call for help to the religious leaders of the nation. Stunned, Sr. Antona said to herself.

"If I wasn't a nun, I'd be there."

She was one of the first African Americans to join the Sisters of St. Mary, and therefore no stranger to racial discrimination.  The novitiate program she went through in order to take her vows was segregated.  She had graduated from one of the few nursing schools "for the colored" in St. Louis, and in the world in which she had grown up, women in general and Catholic nuns in particular followed tradition.  They did not take the lead in demanding change.

But times were changing, and Pope John XXIII was determined that his church would not be left behind.  He and his successor, Pope Paul VI spoke in support of the equality of all races and Christian churches.  One gift their Second Vatican Council (1962-65) gave the nuns was the freedom to reconnect with the dictates of their own heart.  So, when

The Archbishop of St. Louis, Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter, was a man ahead of his time.  He had integrated Catholic schools in his diocese before public schools were integrated and instituted a Commission on Human Rights.  He gave his full support to Catholic participation in any interfaith group responding to Rev. King's call for help.  Sister Eugene Marie (Smith), Mother Superior of St. Mary's Convent, was asked if she would like to go to Selma the next morning.  Since sisters were not allowed to travel alone, she invited Sister Antona. 

March 10, 1965: 

Early on Wednesday, the group of 54 which included priests, rabbis, Protestant clergy, and six Catholic nuns, arrived in Selma by charter plane.  They were taken to the Brown Chapel AME church where the marchers had congregated to pray.  Soon Sister Antona, born and raised Baptist, was singing songs she hadn't sung since her childhood. "I was having myself a good ol' relaxing time."  

photo: Bettman/Corbis

When the protestors began to march, the nuns found themselves in front.  Someone asked Sister Antona to take her glasses off.  A day earlier, a visiting Unitarian minister had been severely beaten by segregationists, which gave the authorities an excuse to ban Wednesday's march.  Disobeying that ban might have serious consequences.

Before the marchers could get to the end of the block, they were stopped by rows of helmeted policemen standing shoulder to shoulder, three deep, billy clubs in hand. In the midst of it all, the microphone was thrust at Sister Antona. 

Into a sea of Confederate flags, she said:

I am here today because yesterday I voted in St. Louis. 

40 Years Later... 

Looking back, Sister Antona realizes she has developed a bond with Selma that goes beyond what one would expect to come out of a half-day visit.  

In 1983 she returned to the city and was happy to see that half the city council members were Black.

Joe Smitherman was still the mayor.  She remembered the "hate in his eyes" when he had confronted her and her companions 18 years ago. This time he welcomed her and gave her a tour of City Hall.  

"I wondered all these years," he confided, "whatever happened to that black woman they dressed up like a nun."

In 1999, Sister Antona went to Selma again with a group of 30 young people, and in 2000, the 35th anniversary of what came to be known as the "Right to Vote Bridge Crossing," she was honored by the Voting Rights Institute in Selma with the Living Legend Award.  In the state of Alabama, where she had once broken the law, the Senate passed a Resolution commending her for her work for justice and civil rights.

Sister Antona, came out of the experience with both a greater commitment to her calling as well as a new activism. 

In 1968, she helped to establish the National Black Sisters' Conference and later served as President.

In 1976, when she was named administrator of St. Clare Hospital in Baraboo, Wisconsin, she took very seriously the fact that she was the first black woman religious to head a hospital. "It is in the interest of my people," she said, "that I do not allow those around me to forget that it is a black sister who is performing this function."

Sister Antona recently retired from her position as a pastoral associate at St. Nicholas Church in St. Louis, but she travels around the country inspiring people to bear witness.

photo: Sr. Antona

sources: Franciscan Sisters of Mary, St. Louis
Sister Antona Ebo


2007 Hartfilms    -   Updated 06/05/2013