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

Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet

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Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change

In 17th century Europe, when most orders of women religious spent their days praying within the walls of their convents, the French Sisters of St. Joseph had felt themselves called by the Holy Spirit to serve God's people in a different way--by going out into their town, seeing what the needs were, and then trying to meet those needs by doing "any works of which women were capable." 

This was the mission of the small group that in Missouri became the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. 

The Sisters of St. Joseph founded Fontbonne College in St. Louis, where Sister Ernest Marie (Roberta Schmidt), CSJ was teaching sociology.  Fontbonne had voluntarily desegregated in the 50's.  Although the campus had only a few Black women, across the street was Washington University where she had gone to hear Dr. Martin Luther King speak.

Besides, the Archbishop of St. Louis, Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter, was one of the most forward-thinking of prelates in the matter of race.  He had instituted the St. Louis Archdiocesan Commission on Human Rights chaired by Monsignor Francis Doyle.  Sister Ernest Merie served on that commission.  

March 9, 1965

Referring to the recent violence and Reverend Martin Luther King's plea to church leaders for help, Cardinal Ritter asked the Commission, "What are you going to do about Selma?"

Father Doyle replied," We're going to go there."

Within hours he had called Sister Ernest Marie.  She realized it would be an act of civil disobedience, but "it was the thing to do and it was the right time."

Teaching philosophy at Fontbonne, was Sister Thomas Marguerite (Rosemary Flanigan).  Since nuns were not allowed to travel alone, Sister Ernest Marie asked Sister Thomas Marguerite if she would go, too.  Sister Thomas Marguerite said, "Show me the way."

March 10, 1965

Sister Thomas Marguerite wrote a detailed account of that day:

We landed at the airfield outside the Alabama town of 25,000 inhabitants, 57% of whom were Negroes...the car I was in drove through muddy back alleys past Negro dwellings unlike any I have seen even in St. Louis' worst slums...the 12-car motorcade took us first to the Edmundite Mission, then to Brown Chapel.

The church service had begun when Father (Edward) O'Donnell led the six of us into Brown Chapel with the rest of the delegation.  There was no break in the singing of the hymns.  I looked up for the first time into the faces of one of the most diversified groups I had ever seen.  Sitting on the worn carpet of the aisle was an overall-clad Quaker, his beaver hat pulled over his ears.  Sprinkled through the first few rows were well-dressed Harvard students who had marched to the courthouse between ranks of State troopers the previous day...clergymen in black, blue, and charcoal gray...and Jewish rabbis.

Sister Thomas Marguerite describes the speeches they heard in the next two and a half hours which acquainted them with the history of the civil rights movement in Alabama and the strategies for non-violent protest.  

Then the church was cleared and the marchers assembled outside, the St. Louisans leading and the six of us placed toward the front.  A half-block away stood the lines of blue-helmeted State troopers, bearing Confederate-flag insignia on their uniforms, interspersed with the white-helmeted members of the posse.  Mayor (Joe) Smitherman was there, too, flanked by Public Safety Director Wilson Baker and Sheriff Jim Clark.  

As we moved toward them I heard Father O'Donnell say, "Get the nuns in the middle with men on either side.  If they push from the rear, pull the nuns over to the curb."  That was my only moment of fear...

I heard the Reverend Mr. (Louis) Anderson ask if we could "march to our courthouse."  Mayor Smitherman answered: "You've had ample opportunity to become registered voters.  There will be no marching..."

The minister asked if representatives from the group could bear witness to the decision that had brought them to Selma, and the Mayor agreed.  Newsmen wedged between the two groups as one by one, first Sister Antona, then each of the others delivered their simple, minute-long addresses.  

Both Sister Ernest Marie and Sister Thomas Marguerite remember standing behind Sister Antona as she bore witness.

When the speeches were finished, Father Jerome of St. Nicholas Church, St. Louis, led us in prayer.  We all joined in, finally, to recite the Our Father, and where the Roman Catholics stopped, the Protestants finished alone: "...for Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory..."  We turned around, and in a spontaneous movement, linked hands and sang "We Shall Overcome."  I found myself holding the hand of a priest from St. Paul, and the hand of Sister Antona on the other side. 

The sisters at the hospital had soup and bread ready for the visitors, and at 4pm, Sister Thomas Marguerite remembers,  "we were aloft and headed home."  

The story of the CSJ sisters at Selma could have ended there, but didn't. 

The next afternoon, the they were invited to take part in the KMOX-CBS call-in radio program "Sounding Board."  The 55-minute program was extended by an hour to handle all the calls that came in.  By popular demand they went back on at 8pm.  Their message was simple:

Christ would be involved in Civil Rights today.

"In our last two hours," remembers Sister Thomas Marguerite," when the nighttime beams of KMOX stretched to 40 states and Canada, over 10,000 calls were registered and over 500 long-distance calls put through."  Not everyone was laudatory.  "Don't you know," a Selma man admonished, "that integration means interracial marriage--and who wants that?"

excerpts from America, April 3, 1965

photo: Catholic News Service

March 13, 1965

That weekend, CSJ sister Ann Benedict (Barbara Moore) joined the delegation from Kansas City to Selma.  An African American convert to Catholicism, whose family was from Mississippi, she had always been very outspoken against racial discrimination. The strategy sessions in Brown Chapel had the most profound influence on her.  The marchers were told, anyone who felt the urge to fight back could not join the march.  It became apparent that the civil rights leaders hoped that "the presence of priests and nuns would be a deterrent to violence."

The thought hit me that I could easily come home in a box.  But I said, whatever comes, I can face it.  From then on, I was morally and ethically bound to the cause.

as told to The Catholic Key (Jan 14, 1990)

By Monday, the voting rights activists had persuaded the city authorities to take the state's ban on demonstrations to a federal judge.  The morale of the state troopers was low--they had been killed with kindness, expressions of love, and freedom songs.  Sister Ann Benedict remembers that some of the younger state troopers had fear rather than anger in their eyes.  Later that day, the barricades to the courthouse came down.  That was also the day President Lyndon Johnson addressed the nation about the Voting Rights Bill introduced into Congress.  Sister Ann Benedict heard him say, "God will not favor everything we do...but I cannot help believing...that He really favors the undertaking that we begin here tonight."

40 Years Later... 

Our strategies have changed but the goal remains the same.  Carondelet Sisters are still involved but not as overtly as in the past.  Instead they are agents for systemic change.  My own witness is very different from what it was forty years ago.

Sister Roberta Schmidt served in diocesan educational administration all over the country and as Director of Education in the Diocese of Venice, Florida.  She has retired but continues to be an advocate for women and victims of oppression worldwide.  She went to Columbus, Georgia "to stand peacefully in opposition to the School of the Americas" which trains paramilitary fighters for U.S. drug wars in South America.

I was politically liberal before the trip, though never a poster-carrying activist.  Certainly the trip heightened my already liberal tendencies.

Sister Rosemary Flanigan taught for many years in St. Louis and Kansas City, then became one of the board members of  the Midwest Bioethics Center whose mission is to integrate ethical considerations into healthcare decision-making. 

Sister Barbara Moore says that the Civil Rights Movement and the Second Vatican Council were the two formative influences in her life in the 1960's.  Ironically, her trip to Selma opened her eyes to the discrimination against Blacks and minorities in Kansas City which was "more subtle, but no less prevalent."  At the same time, she was studying Vatican II documents which had just been translated. These two influences came together in her involvement with the National Black Sisters Conference whose mission is to use their talents "for the greater glory of God and the spiritual and social liberation of black peoples."

It was also the beginning of a friendship with Sister Antona Ebo, FSM.

In this photo of the 2001 conference, Sr. Barbara is at the extreme right among those standing. (courtesy: NBSC, Washington DC)

Sources: Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Louis & Kansas City
Sister Roberta Schmidt
Sister Rosemary Flanigan
Sister Barbara Moore

2007 Hartfilms    -   Updated 06/05/2013