A half century ago (can you believe it?) in 1963 Father Eymard Gallagher, the Edmundite Missions Director in Selma, Alabama, included these words in his letter to Bishop Toolen of Mobile in which he requested permission “actively to help the Negro people in their struggle…”
Some of you may remember how Blacks were discouraged from voting in those times and how dangerous it was to advocate for them. During a peaceful demonstration to stand up for his rights a black man named Jimmy Lee Johnson was shot while trying to protect is mother and grandfather from the bullets of a state trooper. Jimmy and many others were brought to the Edmundite Good Samaritan Hospital where he died eight days later – a death which gave rise to the famous Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery in that year.
Who knew? Who knew that this relatively obscure religious order of men was so instrumental in this historic development in our history as Americans? In fact, how many of us have heard of the Edmundites? I’ve written about them before in this column, but I am embarrassed to admit that their involvement in the Civil Rights movement is news to me. How many other Americans, like me, are ignorant of the inspiring charisma and extraordinary dedication of this religious order and its contribution to our national well-being?
Founded in 1843 in France the Society of St. Edmund is an order of Catholic priests and brothers. Visit the website of the Edmundite Missions (www.edmunditemissions.org) to learn the unusual history of the order’s namesake, St. Edmund, Archbishop of Canterbury and the Order’s outreach. The Edmundite Missions “is a Catholic organization rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Providing food, clothing and shelter to poor and marginalized children and families, young adults and seniors of all faith traditions to meet their immediate needs and help them address the long term issues of systemic poverty in the Deep South.”
In response to Pope Pius XI’s concern for the plight of the African Americans in our southern states back in the 1930s, Father Frank Casey, SSE, left Vermont where, having arrived from France, the Edmundites had established themselves. He soon appreciated that one cannot teach the Gospel without living it and so began addressing the drastic material needs of the black population in the Selma area by: feeding the hungry, sheltering the poor, healing the sick, educating the neglected, and comforting the frail elderly.
Now, as a result, there are schools, counseling centers, food banks, and medical facilities available to those who heretofore have had no access. As one example of Father Casey’s initiative 80 years ago, the Edmundites operate the Bosco Nutrition Center in Selma which serves hot free meals twice daily year ’round for more that 960 children, elders and families. Their apostolate stretches from Selma to New Orleans where they have the largest African American parish in the archdiocese.
These men, though, haven’t done it alone. In addition to generous involvement on the part of committed laity, they have also benefitted from the vital ministries of numerous women’s religious orders including : the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester, the Carmelite Nuns of Mobile, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the Daughters of the Holy Spirit of Putnam, CT., the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Monroe, MI, the Sisters of St. Francis of Joliet, and the Sisters of the Holy Family of New Orleans. Curious, isn’t it, how nuns make things happen! And, how they are always “there” when the Gospel message needs championing.
One wonders if we Christians, a half century after Selma, know “full well the dangers involved” in championing the Gospel. Will we find within ourselves those four cardinal virtues the Edmundite priests and brothers and the nuns who have ministered with them so compellingly evinced – courage, prudence, temperance and justice – as we encounter a world increasingly hostile to believers? Will these be requirements of membership in the Kingdom as it advances? Will we be admitted?
Dana Robinson is chair of the board of trustees of the National Catholic Community Foundation.