Sister Ebo renewed Rock Hill parish at three-day revival

ROCK HILL — “Through It All” was the theme of the annual October revival held at St. Mary Church last month when Sister Mary Antona Ebo “Cracked open the Book” for a spirit-filled three days of African-flavored renewal.

Sister Francis Saring, a Missionary Servant of the Blessed Trinity, and Oratorian Brother David Boone, parish life facilitators at St. Mary, were instrumental in bringing Sister Ebo to lead the parish in revival.

Sister Ebo is a Franciscan Sister of Mary and a leading voice for the African-American Catholic community. Parishioners at St. Mary, a historically African-American church with a racially diverse congregation, felt blessed to have their revival led by Sister Ebo. The revival had a distinctively different cultural flair, pulling from the church’s African roots especially during the opening Mass on Sunday.

The Mass began with the reading of the Harambe, which is a prayer that begins “Our call to unity, work and struggle in the spirit of our ancestors.” This was followed by the entrance of the “Sweepers,” who in African tradition sweep away all forces in opposition to the call for unity. The Sweepers were followed by the “Sprinklers.” These congregation members sprinkle water with cedar branches to cleanse the praying ground.

Each service reverberated with Sister Ebo’s preaching. The more traditional Catholic service gave way to clapping and foot stomping along with St. Mary’s renowned gospel choir accompanied by piano, drums and brass section.

Each night the choir, under the direction of Jeffery Sligh, opened the evening with a stirring rendition of the traditional gospel hymn, “Through It All.”

In her sermons Sister Ebo often referred to the hymn’s refrain: “Through it all, through it all I learned to trust in Jesus. I learned to trust in God. I learned to depend on his Word.” Those words have proved a touchstone for Sister Ebo’s life.

Sister Ebo was born and raised a Baptist in Bloomington, Ill., and was not baptized a Catholic until her 18th birthday in 1942. She prayed for a vocation and applied for admittance to the local Catholic school of nursing. The director of the school rejected her application since they “had not taken colored girls before.”

Eventually, she became one of the first three black women received as postulants of the Sisters of St. Mary, now known as the Franciscan Sisters of Mary. Sister Ebo’s contributions as a woman religious and an activist in the struggle for human rights are numerous enough for several lifetimes.

In 1965, Sister Ebo marched for civil rights in Selma, Ala.; in 1967 she became the first African-American sister/administrator of a U.S. Catholic hospital; and in 1968 she participated in the founding of the National Black Sisters’ Conference.

Currently, after more than 50 years as a religious, Sister Ebo is the pastoral associate at St. Nicholas Church in St. Louis, Mo., as well as a popular revivalist.

When asked about her decision to lead the St. Mary revival, Sister Ebo said, “When Brother David told me it was St. Mary, I knew I had to come. There’s always been a Mary in my life. I deeply appreciate how God has mothered me through his Mama.”

This was the warm and nurturing tone of the entire revival, which has left the entire parish of St. Mary swept, sprinkled and spiritually rejuvenated.