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 CNS Story:

SISTERS-SELMA Feb-17-2009 (860 words) With photo. xxxn

Black Catholic nun discusses her role in 1960s civil rights movement

By Chaz Muth
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As a black Catholic nun, Franciscan Sister Mary Antona Ebo risked her well-being to participate in the legendary 1965 civil rights protest in Selma, Ala.

But she said her fears for her safety subsided upon her arrival, when a young black girl burst through the crowd and tossed her arms around her while noting she had never before seen a nun who shared her dark skin.

Now in her 80s, Sister Antona shared her experience as the only black nun in a congregation of Catholic sisters who defied the warnings of many to speak at the March 10, 1965, protest, which was one of three marches from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery.

She spoke on Presidents Day at St. Augustine Catholic School in Washington to an audience that came to view a documentary -- "Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change" -- about the historic event.

Though she told the audience she was thrilled with the documentary focusing attention on an event she said helped with the passage of civil rights laws in the U.S., Sister Antona cautioned the mainly black audience not to become complacent, even though the country recently elected its first black president.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "did have a dream and worked hard to realize that dream, but that was Martin's dream, in his time," she told approximately 75 people after they watched the documentary Feb. 16. "What about today? Who are our dreamers? I don't know. How are we going to find our dreamers?"

Sister Antona was one of six Catholic nuns who joined a delegation of Catholic clergy and religious from St. Louis who flew to Selma on that day, a few days after a peaceful protest march resulted in a deadly attack by white supremacists that was later known as "Bloody Sunday."

Rev. King called on religious leaders all over the country to descend on Selma.

Sister Antona, then 41 and working at a St. Louis hospital, answered that call, even though many were concerned that the color of her skin and her nun's habit would make her a target of violence. She was a member of the Sisters of St. Mary, now called the Franciscan Sisters of Mary.

About 10 years ago a woman in California who was writing her dissertation on the civil rights movement asked her for information about her involvement with the other sisters at Selma. The information was later turned over to Los Angeles filmmaker Jayasri Hart, a Hindu born in Calcutta, India, who had encountered Blessed Mother Teresa many years earlier.

Hart was interested in changes in the Catholic Church involving the Second Vatican Council and how that intersected with feminist, religious, civil rights and race issues, and began to focus her attention on the nuns who went to Selma.

The documentary -- complete with present-day interviews shot in color and black-and-white footage from the 1960s -- chronicles the impact the nuns had on the events of the day.

As the hourlong documentary points out, Sister Antona gained national attention as the first black nun to march in Selma, and it shows her saying, "I'm here because I'm a negro, a nun, a Catholic and because I want to bear witness."

Selma was a turning point for Sister Antona, she told the Washington audience, and she went on to become the first black woman religious administrator of a U.S. Catholic hospital and was one of the founding members of the National Black Sisters' Conference.

Now living in St. Louis, the nun, who is a cancer survivor, still travels the country to promote the mission of the Catholic Church to people of all ages and races, she said.

"So many didn't get to see (President Barack) Obama take that oath of office, and there is still work for all of us to do," Sister Antona told the audience. "Selma was just a part of it. As long as God gives me strength, I'm going to keep on keeping on."

Father Patrick Smith, the black pastor of St. Augustine, applauded the nun's place in history and said the documentary is a must-see for Catholics and people of all races and religions.

"It's a story of faith, triumph and justice," Father Smith said. "It's not just a thing of the past. It's a part of Catholic justice of the day. It's great to see our history in living color."

Paul A. Thomas, a black parishioner of St. Teresa of Avila Church in Washington was in the audience that viewed the documentary.

The 54-year-old resident of Hughesville, Md., said that hearing Sister Antona urge the audience to become involved in the civil rights movement of today made him realize he, too, could be doing more for his church, community and nation.

"To have someone right in front of me who was actually in Selma, who put her faith in Jesus Christ to carry her though such a dangerous situation, really drives the point home for me," Thomas said. "It's our responsibility to try and right our wrongs."


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This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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