I think we will start off Black History Month, this year, with one of St. Louis's own National Treasures that many don't know about. This article is a reprint of the one I did last year on Sister Anton Ebo, a Black Catholic Nun, who Marched with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the March in Selma. She is still living and in excellent spirit! Enjoy...
"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 Selma.
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."
Keep on Keepin' On!