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"
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U.S. Voting Rights Act passes Vatican Council II

Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester

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Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change


Five Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester (New York) arrived in Selma as part of a Catholic mission specifically for African Americans.  Like the Fathers of St. Edmunds who had invited them, they were perceived as outsiders, "Yankees, Catholics, and nigger-lovers."   

They lived and worked in the Black neighborhoods, taking care of health and education.  The Sisters of Mercy, who were part of the white Catholic parish, visited them from across town only on feast days.  Balancing between two strictly separate worlds became their way of life because their mission was "to serve all without distinction."

March 7, 1965

Selma moved center stage in the Civil Rights drama as cameras recorded the bloody encounter at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  

The Sisters of St. Joseph remained backstage.

They and the Edmundite Fathers had renovated an old hospital for the deplorably underserved Black community.  On "Bloody Sunday," this hospital called the Good Samaritan made history by providing medical care for most of those injured. 

That morning, Sister Eleanor (Barbara Lum), supervisor and nursing instructor at the Good Samaritan, had prepared first aid kits for the marchers--aspirins and "something for windburn."  She had returned to the convent and was going about her usual weekend activities when the news bulletins began.  "I just flew out the door."  
At the Good Samaritan, Sister Liguori Dunlea who ran the nursing program had already organized triage.  She remembered treating "some 60 Negroes." 

The injuries included "severe head lacerations, cuts and bruises, as well as fractures of ankles caused by officers' horses trampling on those poor victims...All of those victims were suffering  from tear gas which caused severe irritation on the eyes. Before long, we too were feeling the effects."

There were local white doctors at the Good Samaritan.  Sister Barbara remembers one of them saying to an injured marcher, 

"I know it's not you. You wouldn't want things changed in Selma.  It's outside agitators.  I know you were led into this."

Archbishop Thomas Toolen of Mobile-Birmingham, too, proved himself suspicious of outsiders.  He forbid clergy and religious in his diocese from participating in Civil Rights demonstrations.   This was the same man who had condemned the literacy test used to disqualify Black voters, "I have read it carefully and can say I am certain that I could not possibly pass that test under any circumstances."  In the 1940's, he had supported missions for the "advancement of the Negro people," and helped establish the first interracial monastery of contemplative nuns in his diocese.  However, even Vatican II could not convince him to consider the rightness of non-Catholic political initiatives.
As superior of the convent in Selma, Sister Mary Paul Geck decided that the Sisters of St. Joseph would "obey" the bishop.  

Perhaps she was thinking of a future time in Selma when the world would move on, and they would have to stay. 


Indeed, the St. Louis sisters saw ominous signs.  Sister Roberta Schmidt, CSJ remembers the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester  had cleared all furniture out of the visitors' room of the Good Samaritan and covered the floor with mattress-like mats.  

They would be needed "if we were brought in as victims."

Jimmie Lee Jackson, who had been severely beaten by state troopers during a demonstration in neighboring Perry County, had died at the Good Samaritan a month earlier.  Rumors were circulating in the white community that the Sisters of St. Joseph had allowed him to die in order to give the movement its first martyr.
In the years following 1965, "change was very gradual," says Sister Mary Paul Geck. "Most of it was on the surface."  

Sister St. Joseph Creighton was the anesthesiologist for the Good Samaritan.  "We weren't very popular with the officials," she remembers, "Sisters were considered Black through association."

Later, as purchasing agent for the hospital, she refused to do business with companies who had the wrong racial philosophy.


40 Years Later... 

In the aftermath of 1965, the Catholic parishes were integrated as were the schools.  The hospitals took in black patients and the Good Samaritan, financially burdened by years of caring for the indigent, had no reason to struggle on.  The Selma Mission became the Alabama mission, and the Sisters of St. Joseph re-established themselves in rural clinics where poverty drove white families to their door.  Sister Marie Albert Alderman was part of that transition.  Today, there are three SSJR outreach sisters in Pine Apple, in the heart of rural Alabama.

sources: Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester
The Hottest Places in Hell: The Catholic Church & Civil Rights in Selma by Gregory N. Hite (2002)


2007 Hartfilms    -   Updated 06/05/2013