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 Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change


Mary Frances Clarke and her four companions, immigrants from Dublin, founded the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVMs) in Philadelphia. Ten years later, at the invitation of Matthias Loras, Bishop of Dubuque, the sisters moved to the Iowa Territory as teachers for the rapidly growing immigrant population. In 1893 their home and school on St. Joseph’s Prairie southwest of Dubuque gave birth to Mount Carmel, the BVM Motherhouse in Dubuque, Iowa. Their educational mission expanded to parishes and private schools throughout the United States.

March 11-16, 1965

Sister Mary Raynold (Gloria Wilhelm), a teacher at St. Agatha's in Chicago, responds to the request from Chicago’s Catholic Council on Interracial Justice to support the campaign in Selma, Alabama. 

Being the tallest among the sisters, she is often their spokesperson in their confrontations with the Selma authorities.

March 25

A busload of students, six BVM and two lay faculty from Mundelein College in Chicago, meet the marchers at the City of St. Jude for the final lap of the march into Montgomery.  Sister Mary Leoline, below, helps with crowd control.

March 21

When Dr. King receives permission to march to the state capital in order to petition Governor George C. Wallace for the voting rights of the state's Negro citizens, Sister Mary Leoline (Mary Ann Sommer), a teacher at Christ the King school in Kansas City, joins two priests in a 3-member Kansas City Catholic Interracial Council delegation to Selma. She is the only sister who is present throughout the entire 50-mile march to Montgomery.  

March 26   

The 300 marchers from Selma, with the protection of the National Guard, arrive at the capitol in Montgomery.   From the steps of the capitol building Martin Luther King addresses the marchers and the crowds of their supporters.

March 28

Congressman Dickenson of Alabama brings charges of “drunkenness and immorality” against the protesters before the House of Representatives in Washington. Sister Mary Leoline and nine clergy and seminarians who completed the 50-mile march travel to Washington to refute before Congress the charges of disorderly conduct made against the marchers by Congressman Dickenson.   They present a signed “Statement of Morality during the Selma Crisis” to Congressmen Ryan and Resnick of New York.  At the request of John McCormick Speaker of the House, Ryan and Resnick introduce the Statement of Morality for debate by the members of the House and for inclusion in the Congressional Records of the House and Senate.

April 28

National television networks interview the group of clergy who had refuted the charges made before Congress by Representative Dickenson regarding morality during the march.  

Sister Mary Leoline's testimony at the press conference lead BVM participants in Selma to probe its implications for the BVM community and their participation in the civil rights movement.  

Addressing the congregation, the president, Mother Mary Consolatrice, writes:   “Since problems of racial discrimination are far from solution, we must prepare ourselves by intelligent reading and discussion of the issues at stake, by prayer and sacrifice for the cause involving the rights of   humanity and by forming a correct understanding and appreciation of true moral values . . .”  
Racial injustice emerges as a congregational issue for BVMs.  The Chicago meeting of BVM provincial superiors and delegates is called The Problems that Unite Us.  Parents of students from the BVM staffed elementary school in the African-American parish of St. Dorothy's on Chicago’s south side, lead a vigorous, unscheduled discussion about racism in Catholic school classrooms.  

40 Years Later... 

The impact of the Selma events has been deep and long lasting.  Three members of the Mundelein delegation to Selma left the BVMs to continue their ministries of advocacy and teaching as involved lay women.  

A new “collective consciousness” has formed among BVMs.  Beginning with an exhaustive congregational self-study, followed by a long Chapter of Renewal, the creation of a Commission on Minority Affairs to study the personal and educational needs of members serving minority groups in BVM schools, the BVM congregation arrived at a decision in 1970 to encourage each individual sisters to choose her own “mission assignment.”

The result has been a series of initiatives to develop new BVM ministries in the Unites States and abroad: working with women, the poor, the disadvantaged; confronting racism and gender discrimination in the schools and in the workplace; attempting to further the “mission of freedom expressed in the ministries of education, justice and peace” in the United States, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Ghana.

Mary Ann Sommer (Sister  Mary Leoline) chose to redirect her commitment to the cause of freedom and equality as a diocesan nun in Detroit. As an involved teacher in Michigan and California, she participated in Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, DC, attended the Mexican American Culture Center in San Antonio, helped Caesar Chavez set up the farm workers clinic in Salinas, California, and continued her advocacy roll as a contemplative “free-lance nun” during her retirement in Salt Lake City.

Canon law is set up so that if people do something which proves to be the right thing to do and it proves to be the religious thing to do--then the law changes.


Sources: Sister Mary Ann Sommer, BVM
Sister Mary De Cock, BVM


© 2007 Hartfilms    -   Updated 06/05/2013