Sister Antona Ebo, F.S.M.
PHOTO BY JOHN FEISTER
During the past few weeks Sister Antona Ebo, a Franciscan Sister of Mary, has been making
national news—again. She and a number of Catholic sisters were pioneers in the struggle
for civil rights in Selma, Alabama, back in 1965. Now a PBS documentary, Sisters of
Selma: Bearing Witness for Change, is telling their story, 42 years later. The film,
produced and directed by Los Angeles filmmaker Jayasri Majumdar Hart, is a look at the
events that led to the protest. Along the way, it sets the context of Church renewal that
led the sisters to take a controversial, public stand for civil rights.
Six sisters were part of the St. Louis delegation to Selma on Wednesday, March 10, 1965.
It was three days after a peaceful protest march had been brutally attacked by white-supremacist
local authorities, a shocking, widely publicized event that caused the day to be forever
known as “Bloody Sunday.”
The sisters’ appearance among the protesters in the following days—and especially African-American
Sister Antona—made worldwide headlines.
St. Anthony Messenger caught up with this amazing 82-year-old at the world premiere
of the film at the University of Dayton late in 2006. We spent some time with Sister Antona
and producer Jayasri Hart. Here is the remarkable story of the woman who, when it was time
to “put up or shut up,” as Sister Antona says, flew on what she calls “a rickety plane” to
The civil-rights struggle in Selma, Alabama, seems like ancient history to young people
today. The Sisters of Selma film premiere at a University of Dayton auditorium drew
a standing-room-only crowd of theology-class students at the Marianist university, most
of whom—though attendance was mandatory—seemed fascinated by this old woman before them
who had actually played a hand in history.
“They said they read about all this stuff,” says Sister Antona, speaking of one of her
many college audiences,
“but they really didn’t know anybody that really could tell them about the story.” One
of her young friends back home in St. Louis, Missouri, calls her
“Grandma Sister,” she quips. “I love to hear that.”
This now-grandmotherly Franciscan Sister of Mary was 41, working at a hospital in St.
Louis, where the community is based, when the Selma protest happened. What brought her
to the Franciscan sisters is a story in itself, one that helps explain how she wound up
in Selma. She tells her story not without humor.
Elizabeth Louise Ebo became Sister Mary Antona in 1947 a year after she entered the convent. She
took the name Antona from a Sinsinawa Dominican sister who had taught her algebra
and geometry. “When I got finished with her, she gave up teaching and went to a cloister
out in California!” she says with a mischievous grin, and adds that another of her teachers
followed to the cloister soon thereafter (they were starting a new foundation).
She credits her conversion to Catholicism as a young girl to a dare from a friend and
the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Her mother had died when Elizabeth was only four,
and the Great Depression had left her illiterate father unable to support his three children.
So the three siblings grew up in McLean County Home for Colored Children, in their hometown
of Bloomington, Illinois. When she was about nine, one of her childhood friends, Bish (“he
was nicknamed Bishop because he wore his beads around his neck and told me that that was
his rosary,” she explains), convinced her to go with him inside St. Mary’s Church (staffed
by Franciscan friars of St. John the Baptist Province).
The young girl was fascinated and felt drawn to the Blessed Sacrament. Little could she
imagine that, decades later, she would receive Communion directly from Pope John Paul II,
during his 1999 visit to St. Louis. That’s getting ahead of the story, but it shows what
a gift her friend Bish was in her life. While she was waiting to receive Communion from
the pope, she says, “I could only think, Bish brought me to this.”
She recalls of the distant past, “When Bish and I were sent downtown to pick up the day-old
bread from the bakery, on the way Bish said to me: ‘If I go in that church, will you tell
on me?’ And I said,
‘No.’ Honey, and I went in that church! Bish went straight up to the Communion rail, knelt
down and prayed.
“Then we had to run all the way to the bakery and run all the way back, but meanwhile,
he’s huffing and puffing and telling me why he was kneeling before that altar.” She looked
later in her “Baptist Bible” and read the words of Jesus offering his body and blood as
real food and real drink. “As an adult,” she says, “as I reflect on that story, I think
we were on the way to pick up day-old bread for our body. And this child taught me about
the bread of life that was on that altar.”
A few years after that, young Elizabeth contracted tuberculosis and her thumb became badly
infected. “I lost the thumb and got religion,” she quips, because while she was isolated
in the TB sanatorium, she took classes and ultimately became Catholic. Her love of the
Eucharist and her desire to work as a nurse led her away from Bloomington to a segregated
St. Louis convent, one of the few that would accept blacks. “We have a song that says, ‘He’s
preparing me for everything that comes in my life’—and he prepared me.”
Nearly twenty years later as a sister, a Medical Record Administrator, and an assistant hospital administrator,
it became clear that her preparations had other purposes, too.
It was March 7, 1965. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr., had been invited to Selma, Alabama, by the local black community and
members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Selma, seat of Dallas
County, became the focus for civil-rights protests that year (though there were various
actions across the South). Dallas County was in the heart of Alabama’s “black belt” of
former plantation communities (named for both its rich soil and its consequent majority
black population). It had been home to a rash of lynchings at the turn of the 20th century.
Racial oppression had settled into what was called “Jim Crow” (similar to South Africa’s apartheid).
Police brutality, public-building designations of
“colored” and “white” sections, voter registration—all of these became justice targets
of the “Dallas County Improvement Association,” a civil-rights group formed in 1963.
At an impromptu march in nearby Marion in late February 1965, protester Jimmie Lee Jackson
had been killed. He was seeking shelter for his mother from the violence after a 200-man-strong
phalanx of local and state police, along with local vigilantes, attacked the marchers.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), headed by Dr. King, called for a peaceful
protest march on Sunday, March 7, from Selma to Montgomery to draw attention to what was
That “Bloody Sunday” march was attacked by the same police and vigilantes who had stopped
the Marion protest. One vocal white-supremacist leader was Sheriff Jim Clark, openly backed
by Alabama Governor George C. Wallace. The relatively new medium of TV, as well as newspapers,
brought vivid images from Bloody Sunday across the world. Peaceful marchers were clubbed,
beaten, bitten by police dogs and horsewhipped by Sheriff Clark and his horse-mounted posse.
Much of the nation—including members of Congress—was horrified. The Sisters of St. Joseph
of Rochester (New York) who, along with the Edmundites, operated Good Samaritan Hospital,
the only hospital in Selma that would treat blacks, cared for the injured.
Dr. King’s SCLC and other groups put out an appeal for religious leaders everywhere to
come to Selma. They came for a march Tuesday, but didn’t get far. When a court order prohibiting
local interference was obtained in the coming days, the historic march finally was completed,
all the way to Montgomery, 54 miles east along Highway 80. Montgomery is where the bus
boycott had launched the civil-rights struggle 10 years earlier. After Governor Wallace
refused to provide protection, President Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard
and assigned them the closely supervised task.
History, then, rightly considers the Selma Voting Rights March as taking place over several
weeks, March 7-25. The nation closely watched the whole event. Although she was only there
for the March 10 protest, Sister Antona and the religious leaders who came that day played
an especially important role, quickly expressing the nation’s moral outrage. That public
support eventually persuaded President Johnson to intervene and ensure the marchers’ safety.
You Outta Your Mind?'
“I wound up in Selma because my employees came in on Monday morning and told me what had
happened on Sunday afternoon,” Sister Antona recalls.
“God called my bluff.” Sister Antona had been commenting that if she didn’t have so many
responsibilities she would be “down there with those people.” That was Tuesday afternoon.
“On Tuesday evening I get a call from Sister Eugene Marie (superior and the administrator
of the hospital—I was one of her assistants). I was trying to finish some copy work and
“How would you like to go to Selma tomorrow?” Then she said, ‘Are you still there?’”
1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling
1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott
1956 Desegregation of Buses Supreme Court ruling
1962 First session of Vatican Council II
1963 Selma Voting Campaign starts
1964 U.S. Civil Rights Act
1965 Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March
1965 National Voting Rights Act (The Voting Rights Act was renewed by President
George W. Bush in 2006.)
1965 Vatican II’s final session
Selma was the water cooler/dinner table topic on Americans’ minds everywhere in
the days after Bloody Sunday. Word of her pending trip swept through the hospital and a
friend called her, offering advice. “Now, Sister, if you go down there, you don’t know
the deep South. Stay with the group and keep your mouth shut.” Then she heard on the news
that night that a protester, Rev. James Reeb, from Boston, had been beaten to death. “And
I’m thinking to myself, Are you outta your mind?”
There were no other black women going from St. Louis—she knew she would be alone in that
sense. But Cardinal Joseph Ritter and her superior had come up with the plan. They chartered
two small planes (that had been “mothballed,”
she remembers, speaking of their poor condition) and the St. Louis contingent of sisters
went to Selma.
“That’s when it hit me, when we got off of that plane.” She thought, “I hope you realize
that, no matter how you try to stay with the group, if you get arrested, you ain’t gonna
be with the group of sisters.”
But basically, she says, people worried more at home than she did in Selma. “They had
time to think about that. I really didn’t think that much about it.”
Another moment of truth came for her that day when a federal agent advised her to take
off her glasses if she could see well enough without them: “That was when I came through
with that silly thought, Oh, God, this is going to be real trouble. We’re not down here
to play pick-up-sticks. I don’t know why I thought of pick-up-sticks, except maybe
somebody might have been ready to pick us up after everything was over!”
Her presence, along with that of the other sisters, was deeply encouraging to the marchers.
Andrew Young, a civil-rights leader who would one day be famous in public service, told
the marchers upon the sisters’ arrival at the staging spot of Brown A.M.E. Chapel, in Selma, “Ladies
and gentlemen, one of the great moral forces of the world has just walked in the door.”
The march went only a few blocks that day, but the photographs of the marchers went everywhere.
Sister Antona, who had been put at the front of the line because of her dark skin and religious
habit, found herself, among the other five sisters, on the front page of The New York
Times, telling reporters that she was proud to be black: “I’m here because I’m a Negro,
a nun, a Catholic, and because I want to bear witness.”
One highlight of the event for her was at Brown Chapel, when a young black girl ran up
and embraced her. “She said she knew sisters, but never had seen one like herself.” That
was blessing enough for Sister Antona:
“There are times when you know God is in charge.”
By 4 p.m., the sisters were back on their planes to St. Louis. Finally, on March 21, the
marchers in Selma left for Montgomery and were protected all the way by the U.S. government.
At the end of the four-day march, Dr. King’s famous words rang out to the crowd of 25,000: “I
know you are asking today,
‘How long will it take?’...Not long, because the arm of the moral universe is long, but
it bends toward justice.”
As it turned out, it took only a few months from that famous speech for the National Voting
Rights Act of 1965 to become law, but everyone knows it was only one of many parts of the
civil-rights struggle. That very year of 1965 saw the assassination of Malcolm X, the Watts
riots in Los Angeles and the first affirmative-action ruling, in addition to the Voting
From the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954 until the assassination
of Dr. King in 1968, then the school-busing conflicts of the 1970s and ’80s, and beyond,
the road has been riddled with struggle, with victory combined with disappointment.
“How long?” has been very long, for those committed to racial justice.
In 1967 she became the first black woman
religious to run a hospital (St. Clare Hospital in Baraboo, Wisconsin). Sister Antona went on, in 1968, to be a founder of the National Black Sisters’
Conference, and later served as its president. With a master's degree from Aquinas Institute of Theology, she spent six
years, in the 1980s, working as a chaplain at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
Eventually, Sister Antona moved back to St. Louis to serve as a Councilor leader of her
community. The State of Alabama, in 2000, awarded her a state senate commendation for her
It was not long after that Los Angeles filmmaker Jayasri Hart came upon the story. Jayasri
is a Calcuttan Hindu who, as a young girl, had worked with Blessed Mother Teresa: “Mother
Teresa was just starting out and she had very little help,” she explains. “So she enlisted
local schools to help out to send volunteers.” Jayasri came to the University of Southern
California to study filmmaking, and wound up married and living in Los Angeles. She had
an interest in what makes women religious tick.
She and her partners were doing research about the Catholic Church during the 1960s, looking
for a good story of how the changes from Vatican II had blossomed into a new space for
women religious. Then Hart came across the story of the Selma sisters.
She had been looking for a good story to tell, and here it was: “It captured my imagination.
Here you have the intersection of feminist issues, civil-rights issues, race issues and
There are six featured sisters of Selma, but Jayasri sees Sister Antona as the “star” of
“As she [Sister Antona] says, suddenly it became important that she was black. I think
that mobilized the whole story.”
The show is available on DVD from PBS’s Web site at www.shoppbs.org.
The featured sisters of Selma, who represent three communities who were in ministry
in St. Louis, are:
• Roberta Schmidt, C.S.J.
• Rosemary Flanigan, C.S.J.
• Sister Ann Christopher of Loretto (now Therese Stawowy)
• Sister Christine Mary of Loretto (now Christine Nava)
• Antona Ebo, F.S.M.
• Eugene Marie Smith, F.S.M. (deceased).
Other sisters who were part of the three-week event are also included in the documentary.
They are listed at www.home.earthlink.net/~sistersofselma.
It took five years to bring the film to completion, including long hours researching film
archives of the civil-rights movement, and locating funders far and wide, including the
Catholic Communication Campaign. Along the way Jayasri gained new insights into the relationship
between Christian pacifism, especially as lived by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma
Gandhi’s pacifism that she knew so well from home. (Gandhi had a profound influence on
Dr. King’s thinking.) And she also learned that sisters of color, like Sister Antona, endured
a history of segregation within the Church. But that’s a story for another day.
Making the film, Jayasri became close friends with Sister Antona who, in a clever play
on her Indian name, calls her “Re-Joyce.”
Sister Antona brings her sense of joy—and her wit—to the task of promoting mutuality in
mission among people of all races in the work of the Church. She, along with civil-rights
pioneer Rosa Parks (who sat in the front of the Montgomery bus in 1955) was singled out
in 1999 to receive the Eucharist from Pope John Paul II. But Sister Antona, too, credits her inspiration to Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr., who asked so many years ago, like the psalmist, “How long?” She
herself, now in her ninth decade, wonders how long.
“Martin shared that dream with the multitude,” recalls Sister Antona. “So if that was
true, then what have we been doing all these years?” She recalls that Dr. King wrote to
ministers from the city jail in Birmingham, “We are always being told to wait. And now
we have waited far too long.” When she talks to students and Church groups—which even at
her ripe age she does frequently—she returns to “When are we going to have our own dreamers?” And,
usually, by the third time she says it, the students or Church members understand what
she seeks. They reply, “We have waited far too long.”
John Feister is an assistant editor of this publication who holds a B.A. in American
studies from the University of Dayton and master’s degrees in humanities and theology from
Xavier University, Cincinnati.