Selma march changed nun’s life

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What Sister Mary Hogan recalls vividly about Selma is the “hate stare.”

If you were a religious sister in the 1960s, garbed in a long black serge habit, tucked away in a Catholic community which revered you, you were treated with deference.

But when Hogan marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, the crowds of screaming protestors on the street near the Edmund Pettus Bridge told a different story. And the folks at the airport as she headed home to Detroit glared at her with eyes livid with contempt.

“It’s the only time, before or after, that I’ve experienced someone wanting to convey that they hated you,” the now white-haired nun recalls in her soft Midwestern cadence.

Hardest to see, she said, was a young child, mimicking the ugly facial expressions of his screaming parents. Another generation growing up to hate.

Americans too young to remember the civil rights struggle of the 1960s have recently had the chance to see by the movie “Selma” during this year’s anniversary of Dr. King’s march to secure voter rights in Alabama.

Still, it’s hard to convey an America where people had to risk their lives to vote, where Jim Crow still reinforced the complete repression of black citizens, and where lynching was still real and not just something spoiled fraternity boys sing about on buses.

Mary Hogan entered the Servants of Mary — the Servites — in her native Detroit. By 1965, she was an experienced social studies teacher, and current events were weighing on her.

After Bloody Sunday, March 7, when protestors in Selma were met with billy clubs and tear gas, Hogan — then “Sister Mary Paul” — returned to the sisters’ recreation room from chapel, where she had prayed tearfully over the news reports coming out of Alabama.

“Our superior walked in and said, ‘who wants to go to Selma?’” Hogan remembers. “I jumped up and said, ‘I do.’ I thought she was kidding.”

But no, Archbishop John Dearden of Detroit was answering Dr. King’s request for religious leaders to come to Selma. Hogan’s pastor was going, and Hogan was one of two nuns he wanted to accompany him. She was on a plane the next day.

It was an unprecedented journey for Hogan and for the handful of religious sisters who stepped out of their nearly cloistered existence to take this stand for human rights. National Catholic Reporter devoted a segment of a recent issue to the march, and on page seven, there’s a picture of habited Catholic sisters sitting on the ground with other protesters. Hogan is in the center of the photo.

“It changed my life,” she said. “It was a turning point. I had great sympathy for social justice causes, but that’s different than becoming involved.”

Like many sisters of her era, and indeed like the entire church after Vatican II, Hogan became focused not just on poverty, but also on questions of justice.

And like many other sisters, she ventured out of the classroom, spending time as a missionary in Jamaica, and serving two terms as the provincial of the Servites, an order which includes the well-known writer Joyce Rupp. Hogan served as the director of the social ministry commission in Omaha, location of the Servite motherhouse, and even today remains a loyal parishioner of St. Benedict the Moor, the only black congregation in Omaha.

“I go there out of atonement. I pray in the midst of people we’ve treated so badly throughout their history. I don’t do great good. I just pray with them.”

Selma changed America, but recent events show we still have a long way to go.

The writer, formerly from Anchorage, now lives in Omaha, Neb.


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