By Rev. Richard M. Myhalyk, S.S.E.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” King’s non-violent campaign for civil rights had made Selma ground zero in the fight to gain voting rights for Blacks. That significant moment in history--that haunting Bloody Sunday--made Father Maurice Ouellet and John Lewis life-long advocates of social justice and outspoken critics of racism.
Deeply troubled Black Catholics of Selma filled Saint Elizabeth’s Church the morning of March 7, 1965. Their hearts were heavy because Jimmie Lee Jackson had died as a result of injuries he sustained at the hands of authorities in nearby Marion, Alabama. Jackson had been part of a dangerous freedom march. The march was more dangerous than most because it took place at nighttime.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference rarely staged marches at night. Too many things could happen. Too many things could not be seen. The group had hardly stepped away from the church before they were stopped by the local police chief and state troopers. The marchers were instructed to turn around. As one of the marchers knelt and began praying suddenly the streetlights went out.
As if on cue, the police and troopers began beating the marchers while a crowd of white onlookers leaped on the press, spraying the TV camera lenses with paint and assaulting the reporters. It was mayhem. The marchers broke ranks and tried fleeing back through the darkness to the church. There was screaming and blood on the pavement from head wounds. Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was a twenty-six-year-old Army veteran, ran with his grandfather to a nearby café but state troopers followed them in and shot him in the stomach. While he managed to stagger from the building, he collapsed in the street and was left there for a half hour before local police picked him up and brought him to the county infirmary. Late that night he was transferred to Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma.
Jackson was in such critical shape that he couldn’t even speak when he was brought to “Good Sam”. While the Black nurses and the Sisters of St. Joseph tried to save his life, he was too far gone.
Whatever words Father Ouellet spoke that Sunday at Mass were certainly inadequate to respond to the shattered hopes, fears, anguish and anxiety of the Black congregation inside Saint Elizabeth’s Church. An awful silence of uncertainly weighed heavily upon everyone as Mass ended and folks started to leave the church to go home and face their fear of more violence, more beatings, more lynching’s.
But the uncertainty and eerie silence gave way to sirens of every kind blaring throughout Selma on that historic Lord’s Day in 1965. Something terrible was happening at the Edmund Pettus Bridge where state and local police tear gassed and billy-clubbed 600 marchers who were determined that Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death and the beatings in Marion would not be in vain.
Because the archbishop of Alabama prevented the Edmundites and the local group of Sisters of St. Joseph from marching and demonstrating, they tended to the injured at Good Samaritan Hospital and rallied the support of others from around the country. In Good Samaritan Hospital Ouellet encountered Etta Perkins, a Black nurse tending to the wounded. Maurice remembered her screaming, “Father, they’re going to kill us all!” While Etta’s son, James, would one day become Selma’s first Black mayor, there was little sign of racial harmony on that Bloody Sunday in March 1965.
The Edmundites and the Sisters faced intimidation and death threats from the white community in general and the Ku Klux Klan in particular. The Edmundite residence in Selma still has bullet holes in the front windows and on the front door of our Edmundite residence some bigot had hung a sign: “The K-K-K is watching you!” The Edmundites left up the sign but these words were added: “Keep on watching, because we’re staying!”
On Bloody Sunday many white doctors refused to come to help the injured because Good Samaritan was known as the Negro hospital. The Sisters of St. Joseph carried a very heavy load that day as they tended to people strewn in the corridors, in the hospital’s cafeteria, literally everywhere.
Maurice described a 15-year-old girl lying on the floor. Blood was coming out of her head and she wasn’t moving. When he picked her up, she opened her eyes and focused her eyes on his and said, “Oh, Father, I hurt.”
Among the many injured on Bloody Sunday was the quiet young student, John Lewis. He led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. John received a deep head wound that evidenced his courage, conviction and commitment to the cause.
Lewis didn’t say anything and it wasn’t clear whether he was even conscious. He had been beaten so many times that when he did get beaten, he would just go quiet, which was his way of going into his mode of nonviolence. John dreamed of being allowed to vote and of being elected to Congress.
John Lewis’ dream became a reality--Congressman Lewis from Georgia. Martin Luther King had a dream. Jimmie Lee Jackson had a dream. Maurice Ouellet had a dream. John Lewis had a dream. What’s your dream?
Saint Albans native and Edmundite Father Maurice Ouellet was an important leader in The Society of Saint Edmund. We have ministered to black Catholics in Selma, Alabama, and other southern communities, since the 1930’s. Father Ouellet was active in supporting the civil rights movement then, as are Edmundites today. The March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, when John Lewis was attacked by police and had his skull fractured, took place in March of 1965, our Father Ouellet ministered to him.
A dear friend, Jim Leddy, shares this you:
"In 2007, when I was on the Board of Trustees of the University of Vermont, John Lewis was the commencement speaker and received an honorary degree. The evening before graduation, as was traditional, there was a dinner for the Trustees, the honorary degree recipients, the President and other senior officials at UVM.
By a stroke of random luck, I was seated at the same table with John Lewis. In a feeble effort to make small talk with a Vermont connection, I asked Congressman Lewis if he had ever met a Catholic priest in Selma, Alabama by the name of Father Maurice Ouellet. His eyes opened wide and he said, “Father Ouellet, Maurice Ouellet, did I know him, do I remember him! How could I ever forget him! He was the bravest white man I ever met in the South!”
Father Ouellet was pastor of St. Elizabeth’s Church in Selma in the 1960’s, and was very active in supporting the civil rights movement, including the Freedom Riders, often hosting white civil rights workers from the north, arranging for them to stay with parish families and even opening the rectory and parish hall to them.
As it turned out, even in his absence, Maurice Ouellet was another guest at the table that night. Though unplanned, I was privileged to break bread with a great man, John Lewis - humble, saintly and unbending to the end, and to learn about the greatness and goodness of Maurice Ouellet, a Vermonter who came home to be buried in St. Albans with his parents. It was quite a night.
"John Lewis told me at the UVM dinner that the first person he remembers seeing in the hospital emergency room that day was Father Maurice Ouellet, holding his hand.
Lewis asked me if I knew Father Ouellet, and I told him that he was from Vermont and that I had met him when he directed the graduate program in psychology at St. Michael’s College, but that I really didn’t know him. He asked if he still lived in Vermont, but I didn’t know. John Lewis said he would love to see him again and thank him for all he did to help the cause. I later learned that Father Ouellet died in 2011 in Selma, having returned from exile in 2003 to live there in a retirement home the Edmundites had for some of their older priests who had served in their southern missions.
If only I had known who my dinner partner would be that evening and his connection with Father Ouellet, a Vermonter, I would have been better prepared. As it turned out, even in his absence, Maurice Ouellet was another guest at the table that night. Though unplanned, I was privileged to break bread with a great man, John Lewis - humble, saintly and unbending to the end, and to learn about the greatness and goodness of Maurice Ouellet, a Vermonter who came home to be buried in St. Albans with his parents. It was quite a night."
Click for more Edmundite related information on this subject:
Made by History Transformed by Conviction By Rev. Richard M. Myhalyk, S.S.E.:
Fr. Richard Myhalyk, S.S.E. reflects on the face of the uncomfortable Christ:
Interested in joining the good fight? Thinking of becoming a priest or a brother? Let us help you discern your vocation!
We are all called to be holy. But we get to choose how we would like to live inside of this holiness. At one point we all ask ourselves, “What is God's will in my life?"
The answers are found in solitude and deep contemplation. It’s in the quiet times that we often hear God calling us into a deeper relationship with Him. Many will marry, others will remain single, but there are those of us who choose to live out our religious life as a priest, brother, or sister.
As we pray for vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, let us remember that Jesus said “to beg the master of the harvest to send laborers into the vineyard” (Matthew 9:38). The Edmundites need more priests and brothers. Please consider us in your search for a vocation.
For more information visit: https://www.sse.org/vocation.html
Take a peek at this Seven Days story about Isle La Motte and Saint Anne's Shrine. Paula Routly took a scenic bike ride around the island and discovered what we already knew to be true—this is a breathtakingly special place. We are so blessed she thinks so as well.
"With strategically placed hand sanitizer and every other pew roped off, it's probably the safest place in the state to worship at the moment. Attendance ranges from 60 to 150 people, according to a young groundskeeper who was weeding along the road that leads to the shrine's retreat center.Life-size sculptures of saints, each in a protective wooden niche, guide visitors along the wooded edge of the sprawling property. Towering among the trees is the gilded, resurrected Our Lady of Lourdes that topped Burlington's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception before it burned down in 1972. This natural place of worship also has camping spots and a gift shop. The snack bar is closed, but there are plenty of picnic tables."
"On the lake side of the tarmac, a Stations of the Cross sculpture garden invites visitors to sit a while, with dedicated benches at each spot. Christ competes with a nearby sculpture of Champlain and his Indigenous guide.On the other side of the road is an open-air chapel where the Edmundite fathers conduct mass at least once a day, all summer. With strategically placed hand sanitizer and every other pew roped off, it's probably the safest place in the state to worship at the moment. Attendance ranges from 60 to 150 people, according to a young groundskeeper who was weeding along the road that leads to the shrine's retreat center ... MORE
The heart of the Society of Saint Edmund’s mission is serving where the need is greatest, a credo that has led us to four core ministries: Social Justice, Education, Spiritual Renewal and Pastoral Ministry. It is through these core ministries that we live out a faith-based life of service and make a real difference in people’s lives by bringing them closer to God.