Sr. Mary Antona Ebo is one to remember. Up until her passing on November 11, 2017, Sr. Ebo still remained a large part in society even after retirement. According to Monsignor Vernon Gardin, “She has valuable opinions… She is officially retired, but she hasn’t given up. She is a fighter.” Seeing how appreciated she was and what she meant to people really speaks out about her character. From her involvement in social movements and civil rights, to her playing a part in the religious community, or even the impact she made on the community of St. Louis, she had been a light to follow through thick and thin.
Sister Antona Ebo left a lasting impact on social justice and civil rights as a whole, especially in part to African-American society. It started when she traveled to Selma, Alabama, for the Selma March in March of 1965. Initially she wasn’t going to go, but after “Bloody Sunday” she couldn’t help but to partake in the movement. “Bloody Sunday” was when Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists held a peaceful protest, until the police and white vigilantes ambushed activists by clubbing, beating, and using police dogs on them. Sister Ebo was the only black woman religious (or nun) to fly to Selma, until she rallied a group of sisters to go. Seeing her presence there, along with the others from the convent were inspiring to the protestors.
On top of Sr. Ebo being there, nuns of the 1960s were of a whole new era. They crossed boundaries into culture, they followed the works of the seperate orders of black nuns from previous generations which were to participate in helping African-American communities, and they left their traditional apostolic works within Catholic institutions to try something broader. These new works would be crossing racial lines to address basic human needs. According to Amy Koehlinger of The New Nuns: Racial Justice and Religious Reform in the 1960s: “The ‘symbolic figurehead’ of these nuns was Sister Mary Peter (Margaret Ellen) Traxler (1924-2002), a School Sister of Notre Dame. She joined the staff of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, marched with Martin Luther King, and helped both schools and colleges preparing for integration.” From Sister Traxler’s first-hand experiences and into the march itself, even though it only lasted a few blocks, the impact of the photographs showing Sr. Ebo at the front lines were outstanding. According to John Feister, author of Antona Ebo, FSM: Brave Sister of Selma: “Andrew Young told the marchers upon the sisters’ arrival in Selma, “‘Ladies and gentlemen, one of the great moral forces of the world has just walked in the door.’”
Sr. Ebo was a huge figure in the march and from it she used her voice and public status to accomplish running a hospital in 1968. She welcomed all. Shaped by a traumatic past experience in which her dying father was refused admission to St. Mary Hospital in St. Louis, according to historian Shannen Dee Williams, Sr. Ebo “refused to abandon God’s call on her life or accept white supremacy as normal in the church.” Along with the hospital, she became the founder of the National Black Sister’s Conference, she received her master’s degree in theology, she was a council leader for the community of St. Louis, among other notable accomplishments. Thinking of social justice and Sr. Ebo’s contributions to society, we are better able to appreciate the radical decision she made to become one of three African-American women to join the Sisters of Saint Mary. Sister Roberta Fulton, in her book God’s Work in Living Color, describes Sr. Ebo as a “Harriet Tubman and Moses for her people. She is very committed. She has been a mentor to a lot of us. She says things like ‘Keep on keeping on.’”
While some of Sister Ebo’s most memorable efforts came from her triumphs in the Civil Rights community, she also did numerous tasks within the religious community, more specifically the black Catholic community. Undoubtedly, Sister Ebo’s driving motivational force in her colorful life was her faith in God, and everything that comes with that such as serving his word each and every day. Vested in the Lord was everything Sister Ebo had to offer. Before her passing, she spoke about the recent protests going around the St. Louis area, and compared them to her experience in Selma, “‘The only way to find our way through it is God’s grace and mercy. We ask for his grace, mercy, and love.’” (Leucking). In support, she continued to explain the phenomenon of history repeating itself and how in God’s eyes we are all equal and have the same abilities and talents to contribute to the world. Although she was getting older, while losing some motor function and abilities that used to come easy to her, “...the 85-year-old retired health-care expert with the Franciscan Sisters of Mary can no longer drive to church. Instead she watches daily Mass on television.” (Parish). This exemplified her lifelong ties to faith and even as her life was changing, Sister Ebo made sure her relationship with the Lord developed and stayed as strong as ever.
Finally, as strong as Sister Ebo’s bond to her faith was, her commitment and passion for the city of Saint Louis was just as robust. The biggest impact that Sister Antona Ebo had was by being a beacon of inspiration for young black women in St. Louis. In her early career, Ebo experienced harrowing discrimination quickly after graduating high school. She looked forward to attending a Catholic nursing school, but was not allowed admission, solely because she was black. At this point in her life, Ebo’s future must have seemed grim, but instead of giving up, she persevered. She soon started attending the United States Cadet Nurse Corps at St. Mary’s Infirmary. The work environment was demanding, and the pressure to succeed was immense for Ebo. After four years, Sister Antona Ebo became “one of the first three African American women to enter the Sisters of St. Mary in St. Louis (now the Franciscan Sisters of Mary)” (Shelby). In 1965, Ebo became the Director of Medical Records, and subsequently became the first African American supervisor in the history of St. Mary’s. At the end of her career, Ebo had earned six honorary doctorate degrees from six different universities, two of which were in St. Louis, and received a numerous number of awards like the Harriet Tubman Award, the Living Legend Award, and the Lifetime Achiever in Healthcare Award. Throughout her life, Ebo had accomplished more than what was ever expected of her, even while the world was so often against her. In conclusion, Sister Antona Ebo showed young black women, and the rest of Saint Louis, that there is no challenge too difficult, and no barrier that can stop one from reaching her dreams.
Reflecting upon her past, Sister Ebo had many distinct sectors of her life, all of which can relate to social justice, religion, and St. Louis. Even though the things that Sister Ebo fought for can be categorized, her soul and her being cannot. She lived with grace and potency in her words; her presence always holding meaning. She showed that she wasn’t afraid by believing in God and following his mission in life through the ups and the downs. The decisions she made not only provided a voice and righteousness for thousands of people, but also moved into St. Louis as a whole.
Researched and written by Semir Alic, Timothy Oh, and Ashley Warren
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