Sister Jeanne Crapo stands about 4-feet-11. It’s hard to think of someone physically assaulting a nun, especially one the size of Crapo. But that’s what occurred in March 1965 when she and several other nuns hosted a civil rights march from Dominican University in River Forest to downtown Oak Park. About 500 people, including students and faculty, marched in solidarity with civil rights workers in the South. The Oak Park procession coincided with the Montgomery to Selma, Ala., march for voting rights on March 7, 1965, a day that would become known as “Bloody Sunday.”
The Selma march crossed Edmund Pettus Bridge, where marchers were met by state and area police, who used tear gas and billy clubs on the group, which totaled approximately 600, many of whom were hospitalized after the attack.
The Oak Park procession did not experience that level of violence, but Crapo, who grew up in Montana, vividly remembers what happened to her. They started at Dominican (then Rosary College) and headed east on Division Street to Harlem Avenue. The procession moved south to Lake Street and then on toward the post office at Kenilworth. The sisters marched and prayed in silence, and another prayer took place in front of the post office. When a woman approached Sr. Jeanne, she expected her to ask a question. Crapo and the other nuns were dressed in full habit, unmistakably recognizable.
“She gave me a very sharp shove in the street,” she recalled. “I think God held me up. I did not fall down. I was a little shaken, to say the least. It gave me a sense of that kind of violence that was terrible.”
Crapo came to Dominican in 1961, as did Sister Mary O’Donnell, who had recently graduated from a college in Montana.
O’Donnell, who taught physics, and other nuns from the university took part in civil rights demonstrations in Chicago during the 1960s. In the summer of 1966, several nuns were asked by West Side leaders to help quell racial tensions sparked by the Chicago Freedom Movement. Some of the nuns had been teaching Sunday morning bible school on the West Side since the early 1960s. When tensions exploded in 1966, Dominican’s nuns, who were familiar with the community, were called to the West Side by some of the Sunday school parents to help restore order.
O’Donnell recalled going to the West Side and seeing truckloads of Army soldiers – like something out of World War II.
“We went down to Roosevelt Road and here were all these military soldiers in helmets with bayonets and I’m thinking, ‘My Lord, where am I?'”
A native of Boston, O’Donnell also worked with others nuns and faculty members to organize social outreach programs for black children, including those living on the West Side of Chicago. Beginning in 1967, they organized a program to bring children from the city to the college for the summer. They were able to secure four buses from Catholic Charities for transportation.
O’Donnell credits another sister, Margaret Niemeyer, for the idea of using the campus for the children and letting them use the swimming pool. O’Donnell recalled that many, if not all, of the kids had never before left their neighborhood or ventured out of the city. They weren’t allowed to swim at many of the city’s park facilities because of segregation.
But now that they had a place for the children to play, they needed staff, O’Donnell recalled. Many of the nuns, who were also teachers at the college, along with some of the secular faculty, volunteered to help with the program, which lasted four years. The modest program attracted support from other areas of Dominican and surrounding community.
O’Donnell recalled the children asking at the end of each summer if she and the others would come back. There wasn’t any question whether they would, she said. O’Donnell and the other faculty had to teach classes in the fall, so they ended up setting up a storefront at 18th Street and Wabash to host programs for children and the community. O’Donnell credits many with helping to launch and maintain the program.
“It was the people in the area,” she said. “You can’t just look at one or two names, there were hundreds.”
O’Donnell and Sister Margaret Niemeyer ran the program for its four-year duration.
“It wasn’t easy. I gave up my summers to stay around and work, but it was something I just couldn’t let go,” O’Donnell said. “But never have I regretted it. It was one of the most enriching experiences of my life.”
O’Donnell was a student at Dominican before returning as a faculty member. So was Sister Clemente Davlin, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side. Though she’s been at Dominican for more than 30 years, hers is one of the shortest tenures.
After finishing college, Davlin returned in 1970 to Dominican, which at that time had started a program to aggressively enroll black and Hispanic students. But growing up in Chicago, Sr. Clemente was aware of segregation going on in the city. She taught at predominantly black DuSable High School on the South Side for a year in the mid-1950s.
“That had a big effect on my life because I love kids, and we had a wonderful principal who valued them. She went out and got new furniture for some of the rooms. And I remember some of the students going to her and asking, ‘Are you going to send that back to the store?’ And she said, ‘No, that’s for you.'”
The sisters all spoke of being raised by open-minded parents. Sr. Jeanne, who grew up in Montana, recalled as early as the second grade, hearing negative comments about blacks. She remembers telling her father what she heard. Her father also made an effort to have her family visit the few black families in their neighborhood, so she could see that what people were saying in her class was not true.
“He just stood up, and you could see the fire in his eyes, and said, ‘I will not have that kind of language in my house. No more of that talk. My parents both grew up in Chicago, and I never heard a word against anyone.”
Editor’s note: This story first ran in 2008 in one of our sister publications.