Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for
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."
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
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
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
It was dark by the time
they returned to St. Louis that Wednesday, but they were still
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,
Another asked about the appearance
of nuns in a
political demonstration, "Does the Vatican
|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
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
trip to Selma has had a lifetime effect.
It has made me a
lot stronger in my faith--and in my faith in people.
Transformation of American Catholic Sisters by Lora Quinonez
& Mary Turner (1992)
Sisters in Crisis by Ann Carey (1997)