PITTSFORD — To say that the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester have friends in high places is an understatement.
The glowing video greeting from Georgia Congressman John Lewis is one example.
Lewis, who formed and led the national Student Nonviolent Coordinator Committee during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and who was a keynote speaker during the March on Washington at the age of 23, last year sent video regards to the sisters. He had gotten to know them when they ran Good Samaritan Hospital and other ministries in Selma, Ala.
"It is my hope that I will make it to Rochester, and I will be there in person to thank you for all of your good and great work," said Lewis, who is scheduled to make good on this promise in May, when he is to speak at the graduation for the Rochester Educational Opportunity Center.
The future congressman was one of more than 100 people who were treated at Good Samaritan Hospital on Bloody Sunday — March 7, 1965 — after being beaten and trampled by state troopers during a peaceful civil rights march.
Sister of St. Joseph Barbara Lum, now a nursing faculty member at the REOC, was on duty that day. She recalled how unexpected and overwhelming the violence was — she had simply fixed a small first aid kit in advance of the march at the request of some of the marchers.
"For the sisters who took care of us on Bloody Sunday at Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma, I can never find the words to say thank you," said Lewis, who had led the march and was severely injured. "May God bless you."
Courier photo by Mike Crupi
Sister Barbara Lum (left), who worked in Selma, Alabama from 1959-68, sits with her friend, Corean Finn, who grew up in Andalusia, Alabama, as the two women watch "Sisters of Selma," a documentary film about nuns who served in Selma during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. The film presentation was part of a March 9 event that highlighted the Sisters of St. Joseph’s long-standing commitment to missions in Selma.
To mark the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, as well as the first-ever National Catholic Sisters Week, the Sisters of St. Joseph on March 9 aired the 2007 public-television documentary "Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change" during an event at their motherhouse in Pittsford.
National Catholic Sisters Week was started this year thanks to a $3.3 million grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation to St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn. A week of Women’s History Month was devoted to collecting and sharing information about the lives and contributions of Catholic women religious.
In addition to showing the "Sisters of Selma" documentary locally, Sister Lum and other sisters who served in Selma reflected on their experiences at the viewing.
In 1940, Mother Rose Miriam Smyth sent five Sisters of St. Joseph from Rochester to Selma, Ala., to work with the Edmundite Fathers, who had opened a mission in Selma in 1937. According to the film, by the 1960s, nearly half of Selma’s population of 27,000 was black, few were able to register to vote, and none could serve on juries, run for office, or become police officers or other public servants.
In the film, Selma historian Alston Fitts III described the institutional, rather than overt, racism that was pervasive at the time in Selma, a city that many at the event described as being beautiful but divided.
"Why burn a cross, when you can foreclose a mortgage?" Fitts remarked in the documentary.
Simmering racial tensions boiled over on Bloody Sunday, which happened three days after Jimmie Lee Jackson, 26, died from injuries received when he was beaten and shot at a voting rights rally. In response to Jackson’s death, black citizens decided to march from Selma to Montgomery to deliver voting rights petitions to Alabama’s governor. They were violently halted by state troopers instead of being allowed to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, which is en route to Montgomery. Sister Lum noted that television cameras at the scene recorded and later broadcasted the violent response to the peaceful march.
"Without television coverage, that march might never have been noticed," she said.
Courier photo by Mike Crupi
This Good Samaritan window, originally housed at Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma, Ala., was given to the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1990 and now hangs at the congregation’s motherhouse in Pittsford. The hospital was run for many years by the Sisters of St. Joseph for the Edmundite Fathers in Selma.
Following the confrontation, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put out a nationwide call for people from all over the country to join the Selma marchers. On March 21, 1965, a crowd that included marchers who had been attacked on Bloody Sunday, and a host of religious leaders from across the country, marched across the bridge. The film pointed out that the Catholic sisters who participated and other religious leaders lent the movement moral authority.
Although the march sparked some civil rights changes, change came slowly to Selma, said Sister Marie Albert Alderman, who served in Selma from 1959-63, 1967-70 and 1992-2002.
"I guess it’s in our nature, Maybe we hate to change. But if you don’t change, you don’t move forward," Sister Alderman said.
Her thoughts were echoed by Sister Anne Urquhart, who served in Selma from 1983-91.
"We know that the struggle for voting rights is going on today," she said.
She noted that change has even come slowly to the churches in Selma. It wasn’t until 1991 that the two racially segregated Catholic churches there integrated. At the time, though, the integration was the model in the local Christian community, she said.
The sisters themselves have set a model for others to emulate, said one audience member.
"To be here in person and meet these sisters is a great challenge for us to understand what we can be doing," said Christine Doyle, a social worker who is a parishioner of St. Joseph in Penfield.
Audience member Carolyne Garman said the presentation reminded her of a recent voter registration drive she volunteered at through the Rochester Voter Alliance. She said she found many people had misconceptions about whether they were eligible to register to vote, including whether they needed identification. She said she believes the drive may have spurred more people to exercise their right to vote.
"It was one of the most meaningful things I think I’ve ever done," Garman said. "I think we need to keep doing it. We can’t be complacent (about voting) or say everything is fine now because things are not fine."