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Mary Antona Ebo

Mary Antona Ebo, FSM, Receives Doctor of Humane Letters from Aquinas Institute of Theology

On Friday, May 8, 2009, Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis conferred on Sr. Antona Ebo the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters Honoris Causa during its annual commencement ceremonies.

Sr. Antona was honored as founding member and past president of the National Black Sisters Conference and for her life as a pioneer of Civil Rights: “Mary Antona Ebo, F.S.M., one of the first African-American women to enter the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, is an internationally recognized advocate for human rights and a health care administration professional.”

Pioneer for Civil Rights

When the news hit about “Bloody Sunday,” the brutal attack on peaceful demonstrators by Alabama state troopers and police on March 7, 1965, near Selma, Sr. Antona Ebo was at work as director of Medical Records at St. Mary’s Infirmary.

On Wednesday, March 10, 1965, she boarded a rickety airplane bound for Selma with Sr. Eugene Marie Smith, four other white sisters, and several clergymen to protest the vicious attack. They intended to join Rev. Martin Luther King’s second attempt to cross Selma’s Edmund-Pettus Bridge.

Once there, the only African-American sister in the crowd, Sr. Antona found herself thrust to the front of the march. Facing a bank of microphones, she spoke simply and from her heart: “I am here because I am a Negro, a nun, a Catholic, and because I want to bear witness.”

All her life she has been a pioneer. She was the first African-American to graduate from her high school, Holy Trinity in Bloomington, Illinois. She was rejected at numerous nursing schools because of her race until she heard of St. Mary’s Infirmary School of Nursing for Negroes in St. Louis. In 1946 she became one of the first three African-American women to join the Sisters of St. Mary (now the Franciscan Sisters of Mary). In 1967 she became the first African-American woman executive director of a Catholic U.S. hospital—St. Clare’s Hospital in Baraboo, Wisconsin. For two years she served as executive director of the Wisconsin Conference of Catholic Hospitals. In 1968 she helped found the National Black Sisters’ Conference and later served as its president. And in 1989 the National Black Sisters’ Conference conferred on her the Harriet Tubman Award, honoring her as “called to be a Moses to the people.”

She has continued to speak out, standing up for the dignity of African-Americans, of women, of all God’s creatures. And others have listened. For many, she is the face of the Civil Rights Movement.

Besides the recent doctorate awarded by Aquinas Institute, she has received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Loyola University-Chicago (1995) and the College of New Rochelle in New York. She was prominently featured in the “Voices of Civil Rights” exhibit at the Library of Congress in 2005 and in the 2006 PBS documentary Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change. A seminar room in the Archbishop May Pastoral Center is named in her honor. Even now, in her 80s, from coast to coast she is asked to speak about her experiences with the Civil Rights Movement.

And she does, challenging her listeners to live out the truth—as St. Francis did—that all God’s creatures are equal in the eyes—and in the heart—of God.

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