Sister Mary Antona Ebo

Sister Mary Antona Ebo is a legendary trailblazer. 

If you need evidence, simply flip through her white three-ring binder packed with newspaper clipping and letters of recognition.

One of the pages is titled, “African-American Heritage Celebration 2010: local African Americans who marched toward freedom.” On that page, Sr. Ebo’s photo is sandwiched between Maya Angelou, Josephine Baker and Jackie Joyner Kersee.

Complementing her lifetime career in health care, Sr. Ebo gained national recognition for her pioneering efforts in civil rights as a black Catholic nun. The image of Sr. Ebo marching in 1965 in Selma, Alabama became an icon during the struggle for voting rights.

“The one thing that I didn’t want to do was to become a sweet little old nun that was passing out holy cards and telling people ,‘I’ll pray for you,’ and not really having mastered or developed an expertise in being a caregiver from a good theological base,” she said.

Today, Sr. Ebo is far from lacking expertise, especially with a Master’s degree in hospital executive development from Saint Louis University and a second Master’s degree in theology of health care ministry from Aquinas Institute of St. Louis. She has also held numerous executive hospital positions and received five honorary doctorates.

On Saturday, May 5, Sr. Ebo will receive the 2012 Lifetime Achiever in Health Care at St. Louis American Foundation’s Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards Luncheon at the Frontenac Hilton.

Paving her own path

Sr. Ebo, who was born Elizabeth Louise, started paving her own path at a young age. When she was 4, her mother died, and her father lost his job as a library custodian soon after. When he couldn’t afford to keep their house in Bloomington, Ill., he placed his three children in a home – where many black children across the country landed during the Depression.

As a girl she was infected with tuberculosis in a bone in her thumb, and she spent an extensive time in the hospital. There she learned about Catholicism and committed to following that religious path. Her choice had consequences.  

“I was no longer welcome back at the home,” she said. “As a result of that, I went to live with a couple of older African-American women and stayed with them until I finished my last two years in high school.”

She was the first African American to graduate from her high school, Holy Trinity in Bloomington. Sr. Ebo had aspirations of becoming a nurse, but was rejected from numerous nursing schools because of her race.

In 1942, she found her place in the United States Cadet Nurse Corps at St. Mary’s Infirmary in St. Louis. It was a three-year program designed to train replacements for the volunteer nurses who were serving in the war.

“They were hectic days and nights,” she said. “Maybe you’d get a nap in, and the rest of the time you were either on duty or in a classroom.”

Soon after, in 1946, she became one of the first three African-American women to join the Sisters of Mary (now the Franciscan Sisters of Mary). Upon arriving to St. Louis, her dreams of becoming a nurse took a different direction. In 1962, she earned a degree in medical records administration, and two years later she earned her Masters from SLU.

While serving as the assistant administrator of St. Mary Infirmary in the 1960s, Sr. Ebo became the director of the medical records department at St. Mary’s Hospital in 1965. She was the first black supervisor in charge of any department at St. Mary’s.

Sister in Selma

Sr. Ebo made a point to listen to her employees.

On the Monday morning of March 8, 1965, Sr. Ebo’s employees – who were primarily African-American – came on duty and explained to her what happened at “Bloody Sunday” in Selma. Her first thought was, “If I didn’t have this habit on, I would be down there with those people,” she said.

God called her bluff, she said. Two days later, she became the first black sister to march in Selma. She and the other five sisters who traveled to Selma received permission from the reverend mother and Cardinal Archbishop Joseph Ritter.

“It turned out that the habit was what got everyone’s attention very quickly, because nuns had not been seen doing anything like that before,” she said. “It didn’t ring a bell with me that we were getting involved with something that was hysterical and historical.”

Trailblazing administrator

Soon after Selma, Sr. Ebo became the first African-American woman religious leader to be in charge of a Catholic hospital in this country. In 1967, she was appointed as the executive director of the St. Clare Hospital in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Years later Sr. Ebo experienced health problems, and she decided she was ready to stop paper-pushing, she said.

With her Masters in theology of health care ministry, she began “sending in the clowns” for patients as a hospital chaplain.

In a 1978 article in the Catholic Herald Citizen, Sr. Ebo compared her job as a hospital chaplain to that of a clown:

“Clowns don’t do a lot of talking. They’re quiet. They bring happiness by smiling in a way that’s both happy and sad. It’s a wry smile that says, ‘I’ve experienced life – both the gladness and the sadness. I’m human just like you.’”

Sr. Ebo has earned many awards for being a trailblazer and living legend, and has given speeches all over the country. In 1989, the National Black Sisters’ Conference presented her with the Harriet Tubman Award, honoring her as someone “called to be a Moses to the people.”

Five universities have awarded her honorary doctorates, including the College of New Rochelle of New York (2008), Aquinas Institute (2009), SLU (2010), and the University of Missouri – St. Louis (2010).

Yet, throughout her life, she has lived by the expression, “Give God the glory and give her the prayers.”

Tickets for the 12th Annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards Luncheon on Saturday, May 5 at the Frontenac Hilton are $75 each/$750 table for VIP/Corporate seating and $50 each/$500 table for Individual seating. To order tickets, call 314-533-8000 or visit www.stlamerican.com.

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