CHARLESTON—When Sister Mary Antona Ebo joined the Franciscan Sisters of Mary in 1946, she was one of the order’s first black members. In the early ’60s, she brought a Catholic voice to the civil rights movement when she and other women religious marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., and her words were featured on national television.
On July 27, the 91-year-old joined 125 other women religious and clergy at the Charleston Plaza Hotel to recall the rich history they share and hope for the future of black Catholics in the United States.
The annual joint conference drew members of the National Black Sisters’ Conference, National Black Clergy Caucus, National Association of Black Deacons and National Black Catholic Seminarians’ Association. The groups have met annually since 1968.
It was a three-day event of prayer, discussion, worship, joyful fellowship and tearful reflection, made all the more meaningful because it brought them together for the first time in South Carolina mere weeks after nine people lost their lives in the shooting at Emanuel AME Church.
Sister Mary Antona said the event was a chance to focus on the presence and love of God even during difficult times.
“This gathering has a feeling of a family reunion,” Sister Mary Antona said. “We get together and we sing our songs, and we’ll teach them to anyone else who wants to sing with us … I like to be able to tell the story of God and His love. Despite everything else that happens, all the prejudice and racism and the garbage we build up to keep other people out, it remains that God loves us and that love is important.”
The conference opened July 27 with a general session meeting and an emotional opening Mass at St. Patrick Church in downtown Charleston, attended by Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone. Jubilarians were honored, and attendees listened to gospel music performed by choir members from different churches around the diocese.
Josephite Father Michael Thompson, of Texas, offered a moving homily focused around the Beatitudes. He said these words of Scripture hold special meaning in today’s world, where forgiveness, humility and love are in short supply.
“We as a people know we have had injustice done to us, but we have learned how to forgive,” Father Thompson said. “We know this is just a little while in our lives and then we will see the kingdom of God. We have to stand up in our own faith, understand what grace is and live out the word of God. Stand up for what is meek, what is just and what is kind.”
The next day, participants visited Emanuel AME in downtown Charleston, where they were invited inside. The group held a prayer service, sang hymns and meditated in silence on the recent tragedy at the historic church.
“It was a powerful, sad and blessed experience,” said Sister Roberta Fulton, a Sister of St. Mary of Namur who is principal of St. Martin de Porres School in Columbia. “All of us sat there quietly and we also sang some songs of comfort.”
Later that day, the group took a tour that covered Gullah history, including sites on the peninsula and Johns Island. That night featured music and singing by the Mt. Zion Spiritual Singers, who offered an old-fashioned gospel camp meeting in the Gullah tradition.
Leaders of the organizations said the meeting was a chance to pray together and consider ways to combine faith and social change.
“We’re looking at what has happened in the past and how that connects to our future,” said Franciscan Sister Callista Robinson, president of the National Black Sisters’ Conference. “We want to look collectively at what we can do as religious leaders in our parishes and dioceses to help alleviate situations we’re facing, such as mass incarceration of young black men, racism and police violence. We need to ask what the Catholic Church can do to help.”
The conference ended July 29 with an awards banquet. The National Black Sisters’ Conference presented its Harriet Tubman Award to Franciscan Sister Ronnie Grier of Philadelphia for her ongoing work in ministry to the black community. The National Black Clergy Caucus gave its Father Joseph Davis Award to Bishop J. Terry Steib of the Diocese of Memphis.
The Seminarians Association gave their Father Clarence Williams Award to Deacon Douglas Hunter, a seminarian in formation for the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
The entire joint conference presented the Rev. Al McKnight award to two people: Sister Josita Colbert of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, and the late Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis, who received a posthumous award for his lifelong work chronicling the history of black Catholics in the United States.