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St. Louis to fete 100th birthday of Sr Mary Antona Ebo, 'Sister of Selma'

Black Catholic groups in Missouri will celebrate the late African-American nun and activist with a centennial Mass and honorary presentation.

Sr. Mary Antona Ebo, FSM. (Wiley Price/St. Louis American)

Two events this week will celebrate the centennial of the birth of the late Sr Mary Antona Ebo, FSM, a Catholic nun who broke barriers for Black women and famously marched with Dr. Martin Luther King as one of the “Sisters of Selma.”

Ebo, born on April 10, 1924, will be feted with a Mass at St. Josephine Bakhita Catholic Church in St. Louis on Wednesday, followed by a centennial celebration on Saturday at St. Alphonsus Liguori “Rock” Catholic Church, where her funeral was celebrated seven years ago.

The events are being organized by the Archdiocese of St. Louis' Office of Black Catholic Ministries and the Sister Mary Antona Ebo, FSM Centennial Committee, respectively.

The dual events serve to honor Ebo’s storied legacy, including her being one of the first Black members of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, in which she served for more than 70 years, beginning in 1947. She was a native of Illinois, where she had been raised in an orphanage for Black children.

She attended Catholic school and became the first Black graduate of Holy Trinity High School in Bloomington, where she converted to Catholicism. She later trained to be a nurse at her order’s own St. Mary’s Infirmary—the nation’s first Black Catholic hospital and nursing school.

After joining the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, Ebo would go on to complete various degrees in medicine and theology before breaking onto the national scene during the Civil Rights Movement. As a member of an order that allowed participation in the protests—many did not—Ebo traveled to the Deep South to join the Selma to Montgomery Marches in 1965, where she was seen in her habit by reporters.

On why she braved danger and opposition with her fellow sisters and activists, she famously said, “I'm here because I'm a Negro, a nun, a Catholic, and because I want to bear witness.”

Back in the Midwest, Ebo steadily worked her way up in hospital care to become in 1967 the executive director of St. Clare’s Hospital in Baraboo, Wisconsin—making her the first Black person to run a Catholic hospital in the United States. The next year, she joined American women religious of African descent to co-found the National Black Sisters’ Conference, which she would lead from 1980 to 1982.

Nearly 50 years after offering her famous words on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, she ministered at a prayer service in Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown Jr., whose death helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ebo died in 2017 in Missouri to a chorus of praise from fellow Catholics and beyond. This week, the remembrance continues.

“Sr. Mary Antona was a beloved Black woman religious, who shared the word of peace and love in her life's work,” said Gwen Crimm, who is helping to organize this week’s commemorative events.

Wednesday’s Mass, to be celebrated by a local Black Catholic priest, Fr Art Cavitt, will begin at 12pm CT. Saturday’s event will kick off at 2pm and will be livestreamed on the St. Alphonsus YouTube channel.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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