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 Loretto

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Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change


Founded in Loretto, Kentucky, the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross, was the first wholly American sisterhood.  In covered wagon and stagecoach, they brought Christian education to the children of frontier towns, coming as far west as Denver.

Through the teachings of Vatican II, they gained a new understanding of their vocation.  

Mary Luke Tobin, head of the Sisters of Loretto was one of a handful of women present as auditors, and the only one from America.  She was at the 3rd and 4th sessions of the Council (1964 & 1965) and was assigned to the commission in charge of drafting the Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World). To all men and women religious in America, particularly the sisters of Loretto, it was "a clear call for the vigorous engagement of the church with and inside of history."  

March 9, 1965

When Father Francis Doyle, executive secretary of the St. Louis Archdiocesan Commission on Human Rights, proposed the trip to Selma, one of the first to join him was Father John Shocklee of a St. Louis parish.  He offered to bring with him the two Sisters of Loretto who lived in an inner city apartment with some of their students.

Sister Ann Christopher (Therese Stawowy) was teaching undergraduate sociology at a Loretto College in Webster Groves, Missouri, and Sister Christine Mary (Christine Nava) was the librarian.

Sister Ann Christopher's students were studying how children "in a disadvantaged area live and learn."  They supervised homework assigned to the children by the Jesuit school.  

These children were mostly African American.  Their families knew and believed in Rev. Martin Luther King's work.  Since they didn't have the means to go to Selma, the sisters represented them.

In Selma, they marched with many young African Americans like those they knew in St. Louis.  They feared for the young people because both their own leader and the SCLC leadership made it very clear that "an element of physical danger exists."  After all, Jimmie Lee Jackson had died after being beaten by a state trooper, and Reverend James Reeb, attacked by segregationists, was fighting for his life.  

The sisters would get a crash course in the methods of non-violent protest.  From the young Blacks, they learned not to talk back.

It was dark by the time they returned to St. Louis that Wednesday, but they were still singing.

There were people of many faiths and denominations in the group, but they were bound together by the freedom songs they had learned in Selma.


In the following weeks, the sisters received letters of congratulation and criticism.  The latter were racist and nasty, but sad.  The world was changing around these people--and they were being left behind.

They accused the sisters of not understanding either the South or "the needs of the Negro." One correspondent suggested that the "Southern Negro needed an education, not the vote."  Another bemoaned the loss of her own daughter to "negro men, midgets, drunkards, hoboes, Italians, Jews, and  illegitimates."  

Another asked about the appearance of nuns in a political demonstration, "Does the Vatican approve?"

photo: Pictures Staff Photographer
Among those who wrote in support of the sisters were white professionals and black Catholics.  One of several nuns who wrote, was from Colorado.  She said to Sister Christine Mary:
I have the privilege of working with the Spanish-Americans in Pueblo Catechetical Center...I 'd love to see you and discuss many things with you.
A young woman from the Philippines wrote that she had been particularly struck by a phrase Sister Ann Christopher had used to explain to a reporter why she was there: 
We must help all to recognize the Christlikeness in each person...the best way to demonstrate this belief was by my bodily presence which is a language which speaks to all men.

40 Years Later... 

In the end, both Therese Stawowy and Christine Nava left the religious life to marry and Christine raised a family of her own.  Perhaps this was possible because they could remain co-members of the "Loretto Community."  The Loretto Community includes the two types of membership in Loretto: sisters who make public profession of vows and co-members who affiliate with the spirit and mission of the community. 
Therese believes that it was the quality of education offered by the Loretto Academy in Kansas City that attracted young women like herself to the order.  In the 1940s, taking vows seemed just a step in a rewarding career.  In the Loretto nuns she saw role models, and an extension of the values she was taught at home.  Her father had customers of every race and creed in his Kansas City butcher shop.  Her mother's factory co-workers came from many ethnic backgrounds.  Loretto Academy was the first school to integrate in Kansas City, and did so voluntarily.

When Therese left the order in 1968, it was to enter a life which didn't seem very different.  She married a teacher who had left his Jesuit order and had the same interests and values as herself.  Together they remained committed to social justice and service.  Christine and many others left around that time.  In Therese's opinion, the decrees of Vatican II had validated their urge to fulfill their mission outside the structure of the religious life.

My trip to Selma has had a lifetime effect.
It has made me a lot stronger in my faith--and in my faith in people.


sources: The Transformation of American Catholic Sisters by Lora Quinonez & Mary Turner (1992)
Sisters in Crisis by Ann Carey (1997)


2007 Hartfilms    -   Updated 06/05/2013