A story of six nuns who marched in Selma

KQED to air story of six nuns who marched in Selma

By David DiCerto
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) — In March 1965, hundreds of civil rights marchers, risking imprisonment and injury, led a peaceful procession from Selma, Ala., to the state capital in Montgomery, protesting infringement of voting rights against African-Americans in Selma and the brutal murder of a demonstrator by a state trooper.

Among their number were six Midwestern Catholic nuns. Their participation — as well as the service of other women religious who ministered to Selma’s black community — is remembered in the edifying documentary “Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change.”

It will air in February on public television stations as part of PBS’ Black History Month programming. KQED will air the program on Feb. 25 at 5 p.m.

Several of the nuns interviewed credit the Second Vatican Council with inspiring them to become involved in the civil rights movement.

Sister Mary Leoline of the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary remembers how she was responding to Pope John XXIII’s encouragement to “go where the need is.”

That need led her and the other Sisters to Selma, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was organizing the Montgomery march after an earlier attempt had ended in the “Bloody Sunday” tragedy, when demonstrators were turned back at the Edmund Pettus Bridge by mounted police with batons and tear gas.

“All the people who’d been hurt that day, they were the body and blood of Christ,” recalls Father Maurice Ouellet, who as a pastor of one of
Selma’s black parishes at the time, allowed civil rights workers to use the parish house as their base. “They had walked the Stations of the Cross … and they had been crucified.”

Memories still brings tears to the eyes of the women, who watch the violence on grainy film.

A still-plucky Sister Mary Antona Ebo of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary — the first black nun to march — didn’t think she was martyr material,
but felt it was time to “put up or shut up.”

Other orders represented in the Selma-to-Montgomery caravan included Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and Sisters of Loretto.

The Sisters of St. Joseph, who worked in Selma’s Catholic hospitals and schools, were forbidden by their bishop to march, but nonetheless
provided board and medical care to the protesters.

Born Baptist, Sister Antona — who experienced discrimination in her religious community which had segregated novices when she entered in the 1940s — found herself in the national spotlight, but many of the others chose to remain, as Father Ouellet puts it, “silent witnesses,” standing in solidarity with those suffering injustice.

Active involvement didn’t win favor with some Catholics or their local bishops. Archbishop Thomas Toolen of Mobile, Ala., is said to have discouraged participation by nuns in his diocese, fearing Ku Klux Klan reprisals against the area’s Catholic minority.

Produced and directed by Jayasri Hart, the program contains some remarkable archival footage, including a confrontation between a snarling policeman and a young protester whose offer that they pray together is flintily rebuffed.

Those who argue against the role of religion as a positive force in effecting political change are reminded that the civil rights movement was “religious from beginning to end.”

Partially funded by the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Communication Campaign, this important documentary is a compelling testament to taking the Gospel’s message seriously and courageously putting one’s faith into action.

This is ideal viewing for parents to watch and discuss with older children.

(DiCerto is on the staff of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. More reviews are available online at www.usccb.org/movies.)


The Nuns who Marched in Selma

“Once you have marched in Selma, Sister, you can never stay home again.”
Sister Mary Peters, Secretary, 1965

National Catholic Council for Interracial Justice

The Catholic Church owes much of its record of social activism to its vowed women, for whom service is the highest calling. In fact, most orders of nuns were founded for social service – teaching children, nursing the sick, and performing all tasks “of which woman is capable.” It is not surprising that in 1965 and thereafter the sisters came to the city of Selma, Alabama, to help the oppressed – the African-American citizens of the South fighting for their civil rights.

A new generation of African-Americans was challenging the status quo of the Deep South of the ‘60s. These nuns of the Catholic Church (which had long been perceived as a “white” institution) joined the civil rights struggle…and in so doing, the Church and the sisters were themselves transformed.

To read more about the Sisters who participated go to Alabama Public TV:


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