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
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
March 7, 1965
Selma moved center stage in the Civil Rights drama as cameras
recorded the bloody encounter at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
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
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."
the Good Samaritan, Sister
Liguori Dunlea who ran the nursing program had already organized
remembered treating "some 60 Negroes."
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
"I know it's not you. You wouldn't want things
changed in Selma. It's outside agitators. I know you were led
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
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
They would be needed "if we were brought in
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
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.
of St. Joseph of Rochester
The Hottest Places in Hell: The Catholic Church & Civil Rights in
Selma by Gregory N. Hite (2002)