With grace and humility, Sister Anita Baird, DHM, plays down her work in fighting the sin of racism, calling it a “small role” and a “small contribution.”
However, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious defined her work as, simply “outstanding,” in presenting the Daughter of the Heart of Mary with its 2018 Outstanding Leadership Award at its annual assembly, Aug. 7-10 at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at The Arch.
“I’m honored to be recognized for what small contribution I have made,” Sister Baird said in a break between sessions at the hotel. Over the years she has witnessed “many awesome women who have done so much” honored at assemblies. “They’re outstanding, all of them,” she said.
Now she stands among them for her “small role” — being on the front lines against racism in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Sister Baird, 71, spent 14 years as director of the archdiocese’s Office for Racial Justice, which gave the Church a “very public face and stance on this issue.”
Cardinal Francis George, OMI, who became Chicago’s archbishop in 1997, instituted the racial justice office after the severe beating of 13-year-old Lenard Clark while riding his bicycle through a predominantly white neighborhood. The three teens who were arrested in the beating were white. Worse, two were students at a Catholic high school; the third was a graduate. Sister Anita, who had been Cardinal George’s chief of staff, was the office’s founding — and only — director.
“We needed to be the visible presence of the Church standing against racism,” she said. “I was blessed to work for Cardinal George. (The Office for Racial Justice) allowed me to help the archdiocese give voice looking at the sin of racism in our structures and institutions and working to bring about a transformation in that area.”
Founded in 2000, the office closed in 2014, a timing Sister Anita called “ironic” considering the racial violence in Ferguson. She noted that Cardinal George’s successor, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, then formed the Violence Prevention Initiatives office “to address violence in Chicago,” but she felt something was lost in closing the racial justice office.
She “applauded” U.S. bishops for previous pastoral letters and a soon-to-be released one addressing racism, but said “I think the Church has to do more than write statements. In my opinion, we must be as strong about this as we are about abortion because it is life. It’s at the very heart of what it means to be human.”
She’d like the bishops to be as strong as Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter, who threatened excommunication for St. Louis Catholics opposing his integration of Catholic schools in 1947, seven years before a ruling by the Supreme Court made it the law of the land in 1954. When integration was slow in Chicago, where Sister Anita is from, she turned to St. Louis, from where her parents, Marcella and Robert, hailed, for integrated Catholic education. From 1955-57, she lived with an aunt in St. Louis to attend third and fourth grade at Blessed Sacrament School on Kingshighway. She calls Cardinal Ritter “my hero,” and became a friend of Sister Antona Ebo, FSM, a voting rights icon from the march in Selma, Ala.
At the LCWR assembly, Sister Baird was among 700 religious sisters processing in silent witness then standing against racism. Around noon Aug. 10, they silently processed across North Fourth Street from the hotel to the Old Courthouse, which was at the vortex of slavery in the mid-1800s.
The sisters carried five signs that together read “Being In COMMUNION Standing against RACISM,” then assembled on the courthouse steps, and sang in harmony, “We stand in communion, we stand in grace, we stand in communion with the human race.”
The procession symbolized the modern call among sisters for “prophetic witness,” as opposed to former ministries in areas such as Catholic education and Catholic health care.
“The prophetic role that woman religious are called to play today is different than it was 50 years ago, but I believe it has much more power in terms of witness and presence and being that prophetic voice we’re called to be,” Sister Anita said.