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The Conversation

  Thanks to Jean for tip on Sisters of Selma which aired locally last Sunday evening. For teachers and students there is much to work with in this documentary starting with its re-affirmation of the powerful witness offered by members of women's religious communities during the struggles for liberation and human rights. But I still can't get Paul Cultrera's testimony from Hand of God out of my head (thanks Grant for this tip) and as I watched Sisters of Selma I kept thinking students should view these films together: one treats a dramatic historic event that while familiar has been only partly contextualized over the years and is appropriately told from the perspective of a wide range of participants; the other treats a terrible event that occurred very near in time to the incidents at the Edmund Pettis Bridge but has only emerged into 'history' in recent months.

    Sisters of Selma offers viewers meaningful glimpses at issues that cannot be fully treated in a single film, from the role of the local African-American parish to the variegated racial-justice politics of the American hierarchy to the tensions exposed by the demonstration of nuns from a residentially and culturally segregated city (e.g. St. Louis) where blacks could vote in a southern city where they still could not (the spring 1965 Selma-Montgomery march capped a struggle that resulted in the Voting Rights Act).

.     Hand of God presents the narrative of a lone individual whose abuse by Joseph Birmingham in the rectory of St. Mary's Italian Church in Salem, Mass. (among other places) was not, as Paul Cultrera calmly explains, "the story of my life. It's a thing that happened to me." Yet because this happened Paul's brother Joe--as an act of devotion--made a film that is partly about the church, in larger part about the Cultrera family but mostly about Paul's journey through the past four decades, a trip he shared in spirit with hundreds of thousands of women and men that grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in parishes like St. Mary's Italian. Paul told his parents about Birmingham's crimes shortly after the celebration of their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1995, but an even more intimate conversation between Paul and Joe and their parents is presented near the end of the film, a conversation about heaven and hell and the places where God is sought and found. That is a conversation which will provoke strong memories in many viewers of a certain age. There is so much to discuss from both these films: I'm grateful for having been pointed their way by fellow bloggers which reminds me in closing there is an invaluable scholarly work by friend and blogger John McGreevy that anticipated themes of spiritual and geographical mobility and freedom illustrated in the films. In Parish Boundaries      John wrote: "By the 1960s two moral languages--an older, highly structured communalism and a new attempt to build a 'community without walls'--challenged each other for religious and cultural recognition." You can see it moving in these films. 



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As a lifelong student of the legacy nuns have left us from the early church to today, I was deeply moved by the Sisters who worked in Selma itself, in separate missions to black and white parishioners. They were banned from marching by their bishop. But they were not banned from helping the marchers, so they set up coffee stations and made it clear that anyone injured on the march could come to their infirmary--there was no hospital or ER for black people.I was disappointed in "Sisters," ultimately, though. I agree you can't tell the story in an hour. But I was troubled that the sisters told their stories, and the civil rights leaders like John Lewis told their story. He was treated at the Selma infirmary. He marched with the only sister who made it all the way to Montgomery. These people marched shoulder-to-shoulder, and it would have been interesting to get them all in a room together to hash over events and talk about what they felt they had achieved.

"Sisters of Selma" brought to mind so many topics and questions that I cannot develop them in a comment box. First, I was teaching full time in a Catholic high school in 1965, and I recall little of the civil rights era. The morning before the program aired, I tried to interest a nun, a priest, and a seminarian in watching it. The Sister (of my era) thanked me, the others seemed not to grasp why I called it an important event in American Catholic history. Forty-two years is more than a generation ago, and much has happened since.Secondly, chance on internet searching led me to a time-line of the civil rights movement. The televised participation of Catholic religious at Selma was momentous from our point of view, but there were many other events in the civil rights movement that dwarf "our" participation Thirdly, I chanced upon a website listing the details of arrests made during the civil rights struggle. What a history of fraudulent, unAmerican arrests, beatings, and jailings. Looking back from 2007, I am amazed at the repetition of so much repression.Fourthly, looking for books on this topic in our public library led me to Elizabeth Jacoway, "Turn Away Thy Son, a 2007 history of the Little Rock school crisis. She seems to describe the personalities well. I guess I have made the mistake of thinking of "Little Rock" as merely a few headlines, a few photos instead of a huge mixture of people, presumptions, and events."Hand of God" also raised many issues. Thanks, PBS. Regarding "Sisters of Selma," thanks also to the bishops' committee that helped fund it. Regarding "Hand of God," thanks to the Cultrera family for sharing themselves.Joe McMahon

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