Published January 9, 2019
ST. LOUIS—An appeal went out from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference calling for marchers to rejoin the voting rights effort after the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama, was stopped by baton-wielding police.
Responding to the call in 1965 was Sister Roberta J. Schmidt, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She was one of the six nuns who answered Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s request as part of the movement for civil rights.
Featured in a documentary called the “Sisters of Selma,” Sister Roberta can be seen in front of reporters jostling with microphones to explain why a religious sister from St. Louis, Missouri was taking a stand.
“We are here from St. Louis to demonstrate, to witness our love for our fellow citizens in Selma,” said Sister Roberta, dressed in a traditional, long black habit.
Sister Roberta played a part of history, both national and religious. It is seen as the first time in American history that vowed Catholic women made so public a political statement.
Sister Roberta died on Jan. 2 in St. Louis, Missouri. She was 90.
For 13 years, Sister Roberta served as an education leader in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
During her tenure, she was the superintendent of Catholic schools (1980-82), secretary for education and superintendent (1982-89) and secretary for education (1989-1993).
Sister Roberta Schmidt was born on May 9, 1928, in Kansas City, Missouri, to parents Ernest Louis and Florence (Noonan) Schmidt. She entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet on Sept. 15, 1949, and was received into the novitiate as Sister Ernest Marie on March 19, 1950. She professed final vows in 1957.
She received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the College of St. Teresa (now Avila University) in 1949, a master’s in sociology from St. Louis University in 1958, and a doctorate in sociology from St. Louis University in 1964.
Sister Roberta spent the first 20 of her 68 years of ministry in education as a teacher and administrator throughout the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Sister Roberta served in San Antonino, Texas and Cullman, Alabama. After her time in Atlanta, she moved to serve in the Diocese of Venice, Florida, as the director of education for 15 years.
In 1996, she moved back to St. Louis and was the provincial councilor for the St. Joseph Provincialate. She retired in 2008 to Venice, Florida, and served as a volunteer. In 2017, she returned to St. Louis and volunteered.
Sister Roberta is survived by her sister, Marion Schmidt Kleyla of Papillion, Nebraska; a niece; and a cousin, Dr. Gerald R. Noonan of Atlanta.
A memorial Mass was scheduled for Friday, Jan. 11 at Nazareth Living Center, in St. Louis, Missouri. Memorial contributions may be made to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Louis Province, 6400 Minnesota Ave., St. Louis, MO 63111-2899. Donate online at www.csjsl.org.