Document 5: Excerpt from Mary Peter Traxler, SSND, "After Selma Sister, You Can't Stay Home Again!" Extension, 60 (June 1965): 17-18.
In spring 1965, civil rights activists descended on Selma, Alabama to protest voting restrictions against African Americans. These activists, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., persisted in their demonstrations, despite acts of extreme violence perpetrated against them. Many Americans were shocked to see Catholic nuns, in full habit, among the activists putting their bodies on the line for freedom. Sister Mary Peter Traxler (or Margaret Ellen Traxler as she would be known after she reverted to her birth name in the late 1960s), was profoundly affected by her experiences in Selma. In this article, Traxler urged Catholic sisters to step outside their convents and classrooms and work for justice in the world, broadening the definition of what a nun should be and do. In 1969, Traxler co-founded the National Coalition of American Nuns (NCAN), the first organization for Catholic feminist sisters.
Selma brought into dramatic focus
the changes that have been taking place among
Sisters will be there when Selma happens again. Like the faithful women of the Gospel, Sisters must follow Christ into the world ministering to His needs in the person of the poor, the sick, the persecuted. When people are in crisis, they are particularly disposed to look inward to evaluate themselves in relation to God. This is one reason why Sisters have a place at the other Selmas.
When I washed the mud of Selma streets off my religious habit, I felt that I was touching holy ground. This mud had been gathered amid a profane society where I had learned a lesson in Christian love.
This spirit and lesson were understood by the nun in the Montgomery airport. A reporter asked, "Sister, you might go to jail. Are you ready?" "I'm ready to die," she answered. This is the consecrated virgin giving witness.
Pope Paul VI, then Cardinal Montini, put it well to Sisters: "I will scatter you among the Christian people who have need of seeing the consecrated virgins in the midst of their profane society. I will put you in the very midst of a society which has no other example of a life of virtue and of complete immolation."
In one of the ecumenical meetings which took place in the Selma church basement a Protestant minister said to us, "Now we understand the habit. Now we know what it means." As we stood with the suffering in their time of crisis, this outward sign bore witness to inward consecration.
The same sign is being given in a new and more relevant way by the 39 Sisters in the women's residence hall at the University of Minnesota. Father Donald Conroy of Newman Hall said of them: "These Sisters have changed the image of the Catholic Church at our university. They are the Church to 34,000 students."
Even one Sister can make a difference. Such was Sister Maria, a welfare worker in a metropolitan city.
Sister Maria was given a large tenement as her assignment. Her first day out, she knocked on a door. Then becoming frightened, she walked away before the knock was answered.
The next morning she went to the tenement again. Not knowing what to do, she walked to the fifth floor and began sweeping the steps. A child met her asking, "Sister, what are you doing?"
"I'm sweeping these dirty steps," answered Sister Maria, grateful for even that much dialog. The girl fetched her mother's broom and came to help. By the time they reached the first floor there were five women sweeping. And then, proud of their achievement, they sat down together to talk about it.
Sister Maria was to have many more encounters with her people of God. She begged merchants for bolts of cloth and together she and the women of the apartment house made curtains. On windy days when the windows were open, the tenement looked like a United Nations flag drill. But they had curtains and they were proud of them.
A sense of Christian community developed. Regular meetings were held. Soon, social and educational activities were planned for the building. Sam, the landlord, saw the growing sense of responsibility and invested in paint, new plumbing, and a new boiler for the furnace. In fact, one day Sam came to Sister Maria's convent and introduced himself, "I'm Sam. I own Sister Maria's building."
One person can make a difference. And there are 180,000 Sister Marias in the United States. The painful admission is that they are not able to assert the influence they should. It is not altogether their fault, for, as Cardinal Suenens has pointed out, canon law looks upon them as minors and defines their conduct as though they were Victorian ladies destined only for Victorian drawing rooms. Indeed, it would seem that the very structure of the U.S. Church has frozen them into an economic framework of hospital and school.
after Selma, Sister, . . .
Pope Pius XII urged the Sistes to be "present everywhere for the faith, for Christ . . .wherever vital interests are at stake. . . . Be there, on guard and in action."
Sisters were "there on guard and in action" in Selma. All too often, however, American society, especially Catholics, do not grant Sisters the freedom which even the Holy Women of Jerusalem enjoyed. Sisters do not have the freedom of the Mother of God, who followed Jesus in the stench and curses of the Way of the Cross. Sisters are considered "out of place" in so many places — as some felt them "out of place" in the scourging at Selma.
All too often, Sisters are considered a money-saving device for a middle-class society with middle-class values. Public opinion seems to demand of them that they keep their middle-class status.
A century ago, the sisters were identified with the immigrant milieu in which they served. As the American immigrant bettered his socioeconomic class, so also did the Sister who nursed and taught him in hospital and school. Now, the middle class seems reluctant to share the Sisters with their poorer brethren.
Our schools and hospitals are out-pricing the poorer classes. It would be most lamentable if the American Church lost the working class as happened in many European countries a century ago. Certainly we do not advocate abandonment of apostolic works among the middles classes. However, is it the best use of resources to have 20 or more nuns in one parish unless that parish is utterly impoverished?
Selma is a point of no return. An old woman there said to me with tears in her eyes, "I never knew the Catholic Church cared so much for poor people like us." We can never again forget the cry of the poor.
It takes moral courage to do what is right even though it be unpopular. Selma was right, though in some instances, unpopular. The identification of the Sisters with the poor, however, will always be unmistakably right.
Sisters cannot bear witness at future Selmas if they are hermetically sealed into enclosures and if they never reevaluate their work and the approaches they are using. Perhaps we have made the mistake described by Camus: "working so hard for those we love that we forget to love."
American girls enter our convents with zeal which would lead them across the world for God. That Sisters are often compelled to serve God in ways not of their choice is suggested by a survey made in the deep South a few weeks ago. About 200 Sisters from Southern Catholic schools discovered that not one of them taught in an integrated school. Yet, at the end of the day in anonymous questionnaires, every one of them said that they wanted integration but could do nothing to change the status quo.
Under the capable and wise leadership of such organizations as the Conference of Major Superiors, the Sisters can change the status quo. Guidelines for future Selmas were given by Sister Mary Luke, S.L., head of the Major Superiors, when she said:
"I believe that the Sisters have a place in the front lines of any movement which is working for the betterment of humantiy."
Standing thus in the front lines, Sisters would be what the great Abbess, Dame Laurentia, said a Sister ought be: a "brave person, not just a nice little thing." The Sister would then fulfill her role of helping bridge the gap separating man from man, priests from the faithful, man from woman, and — as at Selma — white from Negro and haves from the have-nots.
Every religious order tries in its own creative way to bridge the gap separating men from the grace of God. The Sister Formation Conference in the spirit of Vatican II has established a climate in which religious are experimenting with new ideas and methods. Less dramatic Selmas have been taking place and more are coming.
This summer for the first time, in cooperation with the Chicago Housing Authority, 15 Franciscan Sisters from Rochester, Minn., will live in the Cabrini-Greene "riser." Some 18,000 persons of whom 12,000 are under seventeen years of age live in this segregated housing development. The sisters will conduct a "daycamp" with over a dozen classes for youths of all levels. This is a creative, new experiment under the Community Action section of the anti-poverty program. Hopefully in 1966, many other congregations will conduct similar classes in all parts of the country.
Sister Mary Leo has established unique tutorial programs in Washington, D.C. Sister Margaret Ann, S.S.N.D., teaches almost 1,000 teachers every year in a Confraternity of Christian Doctrine program in Minnesota — and indirectly reaches 20,000 children.
In a society which sees such dramatic works as the Papal Volunteers and the Peace Corps, Extension Volunteers and the domestic Peace Corps, it is imperative that new structures for experiment and creativity be established. In this way, congregations can develop methods of utilizing their personnel to the fullest possible extent. Sister Mary Benet, O.S.B., for example, has organized the Urban Apostolate for teachers in Chicago's "inner-city" schools. They evaluate their common problems and exchange effective solutions.
The Conference for Major Superiors has the zeal and know-how to conduct inter-congregational studies of the number of Sisters in every age bracket, degrees held, and in what academic fields, and so forth. More degrees in catechetics, theology, scripture, liturgy and counseling are needed, if we are to be prepared realistically for the future.
Selma reminds us of the urgency of our problems. Shall we forget about over half the Catholic children who are not in our schools? How realistically can we meet the challenge of experimenting with shared-time and CCD groups? How can we more effectively use the few sisters available for the so-called "havenots?"
Even in our own Catholic schools, we must reevaluate and ask if we are using the right approaches. We must take seriously the criticism by such wise and seasoned scholars as Dr. Paul Mundy and Dr. George Shuster. At the Midwest Sister-Formation Conference in February, 1965, Dr. Shuster asked Mother Superiors and Sisters, "Can you explain to me the absolute hiatus between what you teach and what you produce?"
No, the Sisters cannot stay home again. They must meet head-on the problems where "vital interests are at stake." Sisters must be in the front lines of such vigorous, unsolved challenges as helping to define and explain a much-needed urban theology; to achieve expertise in psychology, automation, population, and inter-faith dialog.
These are problems affecting the souls and minds of our people. Sisters must help bridge the gap between the secular and Christian world. This is relevance. This is realism. This is what the nuns in Selma meant to the world.
One hot summer day I visited an old dying woman in a subbasement in Washington, D.C. She elbowed herself into a half-sitting position and cried, "Are you a Catholic Sister?"
When I explained that I was and explained that I had come to visit her, she said, "My mother told me that when she was a girl, the Catholic Sisters had taken care of her after her own mother died. The word has always gone down in our family that one day we should thank the Sisters."
I walked out of that poor little room ashamed that it had taken so long for her to see the Sisters in order to say thanks. There was something in the eyes of that old woman which I saw in the suffering eyes of Selma Negroes. Sister Maria could explain what I mean. I think that our Mother Foundresses would know. It has something of the terrible urgency of the crowds who wanted to see Jesus. Selma is both question and answer.
"Sister, can you stay home again?"
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