Memories of Selma

Sr. Anne Christopher meets with students Former Webster College teacher Therese Stawowy recalls her participation in the marches on Selma

(MARCH 5, 2015) – It was 50 years ago this March when the nation watched as a protest march for African American voting rights in Alabama turned violent. The event, known as “Bloody Sunday” took place on March 7, 1965 when six hundred people assembled in Selma to march to Montgomery and were blocked by state troopers. Officers shot teargas into the crowd and used billy clubs, hospitalizing more than 50 people.

Although Therese Stawowy was miles away from Selma, serving as a Sister of Loretto in St. Louis, she felt she had to do something.

“This was such an injustice that it rattled my mind, my conscience and I just felt that I needed to do something other than be in St. Louis at that time,” said Stawowy.

Stawowy was teaching psychology and sociology at Webster College at the time and was known as Sr. Anne Christopher.  As a part of her sociology program, she lived with another sister and some students in a house in an African American neighborhood in the city of St. Louis.
News coverage of house in city
“When Bloody Sunday occurred, it was horrific but I knew that people in my neighborhood were feeling very tense about their compatriots in Alabama that were not allowed to vote,” said Stawowy. “I felt really that it was so important to go represent the people in my neighborhood and to represent my own values. I wanted to go to a march.”

Stawowy’s desire to help coincided with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to the nation’s clergy to participate in the marches. 

“I had heard that it was just the priests who were asked to go and I thought, here we are living in this neighborhood, why can’t we go?” said Stawowy. “I called the priest in charge of the parish and asked him. He said he would call Cardinal Ritter and it was minutes before the Cardinal told him that the nuns should also go.”

Stawowy, along with Webster College librarian Sister Christine Mary (now Christine Nava) flew to Selma along with two sisters from St. Mary’s Hospital and two sisters from Fontbonne College.

Despite the violence of the previous march, Stawowy was not frightened about traveling to Alabama and participating in the protests.

“When I got there and sensed the tension of the people in the town, yes, I felt somewhat shaken by it all but it was more apprehension of not knowing what was going to come about,” she said. “When I stood face-to-face with the police there in Selma, yes, I was pretty frightened, but I was already there and I wouldn’t have changed my mind for anything.”

After returning to Webster following the march, Stawowy felt supported by students and faculty members, but received a great deal of criticism from others in the community.

“I received many letters as I’m sure all six of us did saying that nuns shouldn’t participate in these things,” she said. “I can’t tell you all of the words of those letters but some of them I still have today. They shook me up. We were distraught by the letters we received and the fact that a couple of times we were asked not to speak at events after we were invited.”

Stawowy said that despite the negative response from some individuals, she was confident that it was the right thing to do to get involved.

“People were fearful and did not want me to go and put myself in front of a fearful situation,” she said. “These were scary times and even though some of the letters were from people you knew very well, they weren’t something I would judge people by. The criticism came from not understanding the situation thoroughly and so I kept those letters along with letters that uplifted my spirit. There were both. Many people praised our efforts and said they were grateful we had gone.”

It was this positive support from the community and the other Sisters of Loretto that gave her the confidence to go to the march.

Therese Stawowy“In Loretto, we had strong people who we sought out as moderators and people to whom we could consult,” she said. “I’ve always felt that about Loretto and in the times I’ve gone back I’ve felt it about Webster. The school still holds that same spirit of giving others the courage to be who they want to be and not holding you back.”

Stawowy recently saw the Academy Award nominated movie “Selma” and said that she felt it captured the events at the time and put recent events into perspective.

“Even today when things aren’t the best for people who are being treated as unjustly as the people of the south were at that time – it just makes me want to tell them to keep hoping and keep dreaming, because although things maybe won’t fully come to what we expect, there’s still something – a glimmer of that which takes place when you have hope.”

Therese Stawowy will discuss more of her memories of the march in San Diego on March 15 along with Christine Nava at the Women’s Museum of California after a showing of the documentary “Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change.” 

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