Sister Mary Antona Ebo, a Franciscan Sister of Mary whose courageous words during the March 10, 1965, march in Selma, Ala., became a rallying cry for many in the Civil Rights movement, died Nov. 11 at The Sarah Community in Bridgeton. She was 93 and was a Franciscan Sister of Mary for 71 years.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m., Monday, Nov. 20, at St. Alphonsus "Rock" Church, 1118 N. Grand Blvd. in north St. Louis. Visitation will take place at 9 a.m., preceding the Mass. Archbishop Robert J. Carlson will preside at the Mass.
For many, Sister Antona was the face of the civil rights movement, standing up with courage against racism and injustice. One of the pioneers of civil rights, on March 10, 1965, Sister Antona, the only African-American sister in the crowd gathered in Selma, Ala., to march in protest against the brutality of Bloody Sunday just days earlier, was thrust to the forefront. She told the crowd, "I'm here because I'm a Negro, a nun, a Catholic, and because I want to bear witness." Throughout her life she stood for justice and equality for all. Even in her 90s, she offered a reflection on justice at the archdiocesan prayer service in Ferguson on the 2015 anniversary of her historic march, and in July 2017, the Missouri History Museum honored her in a special "Celebration of Sister Anton Ebo, FSM," as part of the exhibit "#1 in Civil Rights: The African-American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis."
Elizabeth Louise Ebo was born April 10, 1924, in Bloomington, Ill., one of three children born to Daniel and Louise (Teal) Ebo. She was known as Betty when she was younger. When she was 4, her mother died suddenly at age 29 during pregnancy. During the following two years in the height of the Depression, her father lost his job and their home. At the age of 6, Betty and her older brother and sister were placed in the McLean County Home for Colored Children in Bloomington, where she lived from 1930-42. She was baptized Catholic on Dec. 19, 1942.
Determined to attend a Catholic nursing school, she faced numerous rejections because of race. She learned of St. Mary's Infirmary School of Nursing in St. Louis, run by the Sisters of St. Mary, and she enrolled there in 1944. On July 26, 1946, she became one of the first three African-American women to enter the Sisters of St. Mary. She received the name Sister Mary Antona, and she professed final vows on Feb. 11, 1954. (In 1987 the Sisters of St. Mary reunited with the Sisters of St. Francis of Maryville, Mo., as the Franciscan Sisters of Mary.)
Sister Antona earned a bachelor's degree in medical records (1962) and a master's in hospital executive development (1970), both through St. Louis University. She earned certification in clinical pastoral education through Alexian Brothers in Elk Grove, Ill., (1976) and Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison, Wis. (1977). She earned a master's degree in theology of health care through Aquinas Institute of Theology (1978) and was certified as a chaplain through the National Association of Catholic Chaplains (1979).
She was awarded six honorary doctorates, including a Doctor of Humane Letters from Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis (2009), a Doctor of Humanities from St. Louis University (2010) and aDoctor of Humane Letters from the University of Missouri-St. Louis (2010).
She worked in medical records at Firmin Desloge Hospital in St. Louis (1955-61) and at St. Mary's Health Center in St. Louis (1961-62). She was director of medical records at St. Mary's Infirmary from 1962-67. It was during this time — March 10, 1965 — that Sisters Antona and Eugene Marie Smith flew to Selma, Ala., to take part in the march following Bloody Sunday. In 2007, a PBS documentary chronicling the events and prominently featuring Sister Antona was produced: "Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change." In the time since 1965, Sister Antona often was asked to speak on civil rights.
She served for a year as director of medical records at St. Mary's Health Center in St. Louis. From 1967-71 she was executive director of St. Clare Hospital in Baraboo, Wis., the first African-American woman to administer a hospital in the United States. She served in hospital administration and as a pastoral and chaplaincy associate in Wisconsin and Mississippi.
In 1987, Sister Antona was elected to congregational leadership at a special refounding chapter that completed the process of reunification of the Sisters of St. Mary and the Sisters of St. Francis of Maryville, Mo., as the Franciscan Sisters of Mary; she served through 1991. She then served three-year terms (1991-94) as a member of the St. Louis Archdiocesan Human Rights Commission and a member of the Missouri Catholic Conference on Social Concerns. She was pastoral associate at her parish, St. Nicholas Church in St. Louis (1992-2008). She served on the Board of Directors for Cardinal Ritter Institute (now Cardinal Ritter Senior Services), serving also as secretary of the board.
Sister Antona was a founding member of the National Black Sisters' Conference (1968) and served as its president. In 1989, the conference awarded her the Harriet Tubman Award for being "called to be a Moses to the people." Besides her honorary doctorates, Sister Antona has received many awards and recognition for her courage and her insight on civil rights issues. She received Communion from Pope John Paul II and gave President Obama a hug after she offered an invocation at a dinner honoring him. A seminar room at the Cardinal Rigali Center in St. Louis, is named in her honor. She was featured prominently in the "Voices of Civil Rights" exhibit at the Library of Congress in 2005; despite age and frailty she continued to speak on her experiences on national and international levels well into her 90s, challenging listeners to live out the truth that all God's creatures are equal in the eyes and heart of God.
Archbishop Robert J. Carlson issued a statement on the death of Sister Antona. He stated, "We will miss her living example of working for justice in the context of our Catholic faith. I ask that the faithful of the Archdiocese of St. Louis join me in praying for the repose of the soul of Sister Ebo. Her family, friends, and her religious community will continue to be in our thoughts and prayers."
A statement from the archdiocesan Peace and Justice Commission noted that Sister Antona's "courage and work to end the injustice of racism provided the inspiration and guidance to the Commission as we began our task of responding to systemic injustice by building a more just community that strengthens the family and promotes human dignity for the common good."
A private burial will take place in Resurrection Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, donations to Cardinal Ritter High School, the archdiocesan Peace and Justice Commission, St. Matthew Church, St. Nicholas Church, or St. Alphonsus Liguori (Rock) Church are appreciated.