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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

308: ”We’re going to love ‘em and love ‘em until they can’t stand it anymore.”

Day 308: Monday January 18th 2021

”We’re going to love ‘em and love ‘em until they can’t stand it anymore.”

In 1960s Los Angeles a trailblazing group of nuns, The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, bravely stood up to the patriarchy of the Catholic Church, fighting for equality, their livelihoods, and their own freedom against an all-powerful Cardinal who sought to keep them in their place.

Their bold acts of faith, defiance and activism turned the Church upside down, helping to reshape our society in ways that continue to resonate today. From marching in Selma in 1965 to the Women’s March in 2018, they challenged the notion of what a nun and a woman were supposed to be.

These unlikely resistance fighters, including Anita Caspary, Helen Kelley, Pat Reif and iconic pop artist Corita Kent, were devoted to a life of service, not only to others but to themselves - forming a community that empowered each sister to live up to her fullest potential. Their desire to bring the church into modern life was met with forceful opposition at every turn.

(Los Angeles Cardinal McIntyre)

As each of them discovered their own talents and voices, they fully stepped into their roles as leaders in a movement that is still making waves.

On this remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr. I think it’s appropriate to tell the story of Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Patrice Underwood – one of the Sisters of Selma.

In 1965 Sister Patrice Underwood, IHM ministered in a parish in San Francisco, California and was asked to join the March to Selma. As Mother General, Anita Caspary gave Sister Patrice permission to attend and kept in touch with her throughout the historic struggle.

Below is an excerpt from a letter Patrice wrote to the IHM Sisters upon her return from Selma, Alabama.

Dear Sisters,

"When Sister Marion asked me to tell you about my experiences in Selma, I realized that what a difficult task it would be for there are no words that can adequately describe what took place there and important too, what took place in the hears and souls of those who had the privilege of living with the suffering people of Selma. How often I thought of all of you and wished so much that each of you could have been with me experiencing the great love of these people. It was their love which was the great force we felt in the ghetto. The words of William Stringfellow in describing the long years of protest and agony of the negro people as the example of truly witnessing the Cross, kept ringing in my ears. Truly these people know that the cross is more than a symbol, it is a continuous giving of love, even to those who would take your very life.

I would like to tell you first of all, how I actually was able to go to Selma. A member of the Catholic Inter-racial Council called me and asked if there was a possibility of a sister joining the group from San Francisco. The plane fare and accommodations would be arranged. I called Reverend Mother (Sr. Humiliata) to inform her of the request, but had no idea she would call back in a couple of days and ask if I would like to go to Selma. I was shocked and delighted! However, I certainly felt that there were many sisters who would love to go and who would be able to come back and convey their experiences in a far more reaching way than I ever could. You can be sure that I felt it a great honor to be asked to represent all of you and other religious who would have loved to have been present. I need not tell you how unworthy I felt of this great privilege.

The sisters, parishioners and friends were at the airport to see us off. Before departure the first group who went to Selma returned. They briefed us on conditions and on proper precautions to be taken when we arrive. I was particularly happy to be able to talk with the two Maryknoll Sisters who gave me some idea of what to expect.

After receiving a blessing, all present offered prayers for our safety, and sang hymns and freedom songs (yes, right in the airport) and then we were off for Selma. An Anglican seminarian and his wife who were on the same plane were surprised and happy to hear that we were going to Selma so they joined our group. This was just the beginning of the great spirit of ecumenism that we were to experience for five days.

After attending Mass in Atlanta we flew to Montgomery and were greeted at the airport by some Episcopalian priests who were on their way home to New York. They welcomed us like old friends and when asked how conditions were in Selma they smiled and said that we were in for a great experience. One ecumenical surprise was the fact that every morning they had borrowed albs and surplices from the Catholic Mission and offered services in the Baptist Church. Neither the Catholic or the Episcopalian Bishops welcomed their clergy, so this common pain united the clergy in a way nothing else could.

The trip into Selma was frightening to say the least. You could breathe the air of tension and hatred. The stares and shouts of passing whites filled us with fear and apprehension of what was in store for the invaders. I must admit I had the temptation to duck to the floor of the car many times. State troopers were parked on every corner and eyed us suspiciously. It was a terrible experience to look at these men and know that we could not and would not go to them for protection. As we entered the ghetto we began to relax.

The warm welcome from the many people in front of Brown’s Chapel gave is the feeling that we were at home with friends. Ministers, priests, students, and children came up to meet us. There was such a contrast between this beautiful spirit on one side of the street and from the other side the stares of state troopers watching our every movement. I’m sure the worst criminals have never been so well guarded. The acceptance and love of all these people helped us to forget some of the hate and fear.

The homes of the negroes were open to all of us. I had asked Reverent Mother (Humiliata) if I could stay with a negro family so as to share in a greater way the real life of the negro. I found, to my deep regret, that this could be dangerous for the family after we left, so I stayed at the Good Samaritan Hospital. The rest of my group did stay with families. These families made great sacrifices to make their home comfortable for their visitors. The priests and laypeople who had this great privilege learned many things from these wonderful people, mainly their most unbelievable spirit of Christian love. The mother of one family told about her fifteen-year-old daughter who was away at an institution recovering from a breakdown following her treatment in jail after a demonstration.

The bravery and courage of the young people of Selma gave many of the older people the courage they needed to begin fighting for their freedom. As with so many of us, they too have given up at times and wondered if the struggle is worth it. It is evident that the young have not and will not give up.

One woman told us ”We’re going to love ‘em and love ‘em until they can’t stand it anymore.” They intend to fight the non-violent way no matter the suffering they may have to endure.

My stay at the hospital was a wonderful experience. Talking with the sisters and visiting the patients gave me great insight into the real problems of life in a police state. The sisters at the hospital and the Edmunnite Fathers at St. Elizabeth’s Mission are truly dedicated religious and risk their lives daily in helping the negro people. I wish that I had the time and space to relate to you the many stories they told us. You would find their stories of the inhuman treat of the negro hard to believe. One sister told us that she had to plead with the state trooper to remove the chains that were attached to a negro minister who was dying of pneumonia. He had been brought to the hospital from the jail, where he had developed pneumonia after having lain unconscious in a water-filled cell with a fan blowing on him. Many suffering negroes find peace and love at this hospital and those of us who lived there realize what a great loss it will be if it ceases to operate.

They have great debts, for they have no help from the white community and the negroes are so poor that fifty percent of the patients are charity cases. It is hoped that the many clergy and religious who stayed there and saw the great contribution of this hospital to the progress of the negro will not forget to give them support in any way that they can. You should have been with us on “Ecumenical Hall”. Rabbis, ministers, priests, sisters stayed on one wing of the hospital. Pope John would have loved to have been there I am sure.

I visited negro families, talked with teenagers and older men and women. In all my encounters, no matter the age of the persons, I sensed an unbelievable lack of bitterness of complaint about their conditions or the brutality of the state troopers or other whites. One woman insisted on being my champeron and after being with her for awhile I realized that she seemed in pain, yet was very cheerful.. I asked her how she felt and she responded,

“Oh, Sister, I’m not really sick, but I’m recuperating from the last March. I didn’t move fast enough for those state troopers and I have three broken ribs.”

This was said without bitterness. She only complained that she was lonely, for her husband was in Korea…her husband who will not be able to vote when he comes home from service. Several times old men and women grabbed my hand or gave me an embrace and tried to express in a truly loving and simple way how much our presence meant to them.

With tears streaming down their faces they poured out words of love, hope and gratitude. Believe me, they weren’t the only ones with tears. It didn’t occur to me that many of them this was the first time that a white person accepted them and showed love for them. This was an overwhelming experience for them…not saying what it was for all of the white visitors.

More and more I realized how often we forget that many people will only know Christ’s love for them through our going out to them, whether these people be our negro neighbors, our children, our patients or very important our own sisters who suffer because they do not feel accepted.

The white segregationalists of Selma truly saw Christ invade, for the sight of white and black joined hand in hand was more than they could take. Yes, it was an invasion to be sure, an invasion into the consciences of the white men who deny Christ to these oppressed people.

At an orientation meeting we were told how to defend ourselves and how to help others if they were attacked during the March. We were told to speak to the white people only if we could go with love in our hearts. A Christian community of love was the goal of these people, not retaliation or hate. The March without weapons was to speak to the whites of love, of Christian motivation. Those of us present at the orientation meeting were overwhelmed by this truly Christian philosophy of the non-violent movement and our fears of physical danger were lessened as we sensed the bond of unity and love among the negro people and all the white invaders.

We knew that we were hated as”white nigger lovers”, but the joy of sharing in their sufferings made the fight for freedom grow stronger. Nothing else seemed to matter. We were truly involved and it was a marvelous experience.

The Sunday and Monday March was something impossible to describe. Never did I experience such hate and love at the same time. After Dr. King’s inspiring talk before the March, I’m sure the crowd would have marched forever. Without a doubt, he is their spiritual leader. I know we white Christians experienced deep sorrow as we became more aware of our own sins of injustice through lack of real concern or involvement. Long periods of silence on the march gave us time to think and pray very earnestly.

The negro men and white ministers and priests were the real body guards of the women, especially when whites expressed their hatred. The foul language, the shouts of hatred from men, women and children was an ugly sight to behold. It was like a nightmare….a terrifying and hellish experience. When there were no whites along the road we were able to sing or just talk to each other. The normal social barriers did not exist. There was openness, love and communication incomprehensible to anyone not present.

How often we recalled old testament history. We truly experienced the sentiments of an oppressed people being led to the Promised Land.. A Jewish actor from Hollywood was walking beside me and after several hours of conversation he told me that the presence of priests and religious gave him the courage to come. Many with whom I spoke expressed the same.

As a Sister in Selma I was very aware of what the religious symbolized to these people. How much they look to us for leadership, for concern in the problems of others.

Never was I so conscious of the importance of body presence. We came to them, so they believed that we really cared. This gave them the hope and the courage they needed to continue the struggle for freedom.

A Film about the IHM's

Rebel Hearts is an upcoming 2021 American documentary film, directed, produced, and edited by Pedro Kos. The film follows a group of progressive nuns at the Immaculate Heart College, including Anita Caspary, Helen Kelley, and Corita Kent as they made sure women received degrees, and transformed the education system.

It will have its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 29, 2021.

Important Dates:

December 15: Program announcement

January 7: Tickets go on sale

January 28 - February 3: Sundance Festival

January 29 6pm pst: Rebel Hearts online premiere date

January 31 7am pst: Rebel Hearts second online screening

We will keep you informed about screenings and tickets!

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