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Selma Churches Remember a Very Different Palm Sunday 50 Years Ago

Queen of Peace Church in Selma, Alabama

Christine S. Weerts

Christine S. Weerts - published on 03/26/15

Once segregated parishes look back at changes in race relations

The Palm Sunday processional at St. Paul Episcopal Church in Selma, Alabama, will begin — as it always does — at the doors of the century-old church. This year, the wide-open doors will welcome to the service members of St. Paul’s as well as members of African American Episcopal parishes: St. Mark’s in Birmingham and Church of the Good Shepherd in Montgomery and Selma’s Brown Chapel AME.

Fifty years ago, those doors were shut twice to African Americans and out-of-town Episcopalians who sought to worship with the all-white congregation.

We are very excited about the service," said Rev. Carolyn Foster, a deacon at St. Mark’s. "It is important to get past the shame and guilt of that time and move forward."

The Palm Sunday service, a reading of the Passion and a Litany of reconciliation, is a time for the church family to remember those sins of the past and present, as well as celebrate the work of Christ in opening hearts — and doors to all people, said Rector Jack Alvey.

"The fact that we can tell this story today today is liberating because we open ourselves up to the good news of Jesus Christ; good news that says God is in the business of transformation.

"To see men and women of all races kneeling together at the altar reminds us we are all part of the problems in the world and only with God’s help can we live in a society that is truly one with God," Alvey said.

Fifty years ago, the City of Selma drew thousands of people of all faiths when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for a witness to support voting rights for blacks. He issued his call after sheriff deputies and state troopers attacked peaceful marchers with billy clubs and tear gas, sending 100 to the hospital on March 7, 1965, a day called "Bloody Sunday."

A week later, the Episcopalian clergy, including members of the Episcopal Society for Racial and Cultural Unity, and Seminarian Jonathan Daniels, who was helping in the civil rights campaign (and in August 1965 was killed for his activism), as well as rectors and lay members from St. Mark’s in Birmingham, and children from a local housing project showed up at St. Paul’s. The doors were shut by members of the church vestry serving as ushers.

Not all St. Paul members agreed with the action. About 25 members walked out of the church that morning and said a prayer with the visitors at the closed doors.

On March 21, 1965, the doors were shut again to "outside agitators." Finally, after much soul searching, prayer, and relying on the strength of the canon law — which states that no Episcopalian should be turned away from any parish — the vestry voted to open its doors to all people. On March 28, 1965, the doors opened to all and the work of reconciliation began in earnest.

It was not without pain. Several members of the vestry and church left St. Paul’s and never returned, rather than agree to integration. At the same time, other members stood up for justice. Wrote one of the  visitors denied entrance earlier in March: "What I remember most about the church visit was the position of a local lady, elegant and ramrod straight, a member of the parish, accompanied by what appeared to be her professionally dressed son. She took on the men with crossed arms and let them know that if we were forbidden to enter, then she would stand outside with us."

On Sunday, clergy and parishioners will stop at the steps, where the delegation was blocked from worship, and "will name and recognize that we are all responsible for the systems of injustice and hate in our world."

"The Palm Sunday service will signify our commitment to find common ground in a faith that believes

that God is building up the kingdom right here in Alabama," Alvey said. "We will kneel in faith at those doors in a faith that believes in a God  in whose good time is making all people one through the reconciling love of Jesus Christ our Lord."

Just a few blocks away, members of Queen of Peace Catholic Church will celebrate Palm Sunday as a vibrant, integrated parish as they have been after a forced merger of two parishes nearly 45 years ago. The church today represents the merger of Assumption (white) and St. Elizabeth (black) into one church family on Christmas Day, 1971, one of the first integrated churches in Selma.  

Bishop John May in summer 1971 met with the parish councils of Assumption and St. Elizabeth and told them to unite as a sign of hope to the Selma community.

Bringing the two churches together was difficult and painful for both parishes, said John Crear, who was president of the St. Elizabeth parish council and Paul Robitalle, on the Assumption council. Many members of both churches left, rather than integrate.

Crear was in the tough position of advocating for a merger he himself didn’t want. His members were hurt to give up their beloved church and lose their distinct identity and customs — and their building. Founded by the Fathers of St. Edmund in 1937, the church served about 100 families who were mostly new to the Catholic faith. They met in a small sacred space, and knew they would be moving to the larger Assumption church building — which was built in 1869 with stones from the old Confederate arsenal.

There were also difficult memories, Crear said. He remembers when two Assumption members threw rocks at two young boys from St. Elizabeth who had been brought to the white church by the priest to serve at the altar.

"I just didn’t want to go there," Crear recalled.  At the same time, Crear said he had come into the church believing it was the church "universal" and he should be welcome anywhere.

Robitalle said that just as the other parish, whites who were most upset "just left." Others struggled for several Sundays with sharing the peace.

But for Robitalle, who had moved to Selma from Massachusetts in 1959, it was a blessing. "I never liked the segregation in the South. I hated to see those signs everywhere  ‘white only’ and ‘colored only,’" he said.

Edmundite Father Nelson Ziter, who had strong connections within both the black and white communities, took over the blended parish. He also suggested the new name: "Queen of Peace," calling on the love of Mary to bring peace to the newly united parish.  

Today an African-American nun, Sister Veronica, Sisters of the Holy Family, teaches Bible class. The associate pastor, Edmundite Father Lino Oropeza, is from Caracas, Venezuela. The Fathers of St. Edmund continue a mercy ministry in the community, sponsoring a soup kitchen and senior center serving the poor of all races.

"This is the most vital parish I have ever been a member of," said Alston Fitts,  who joined when his family moved to Selma in 1978. "The people who weathered the storm are deeply committed to being the church. It was a real blessing that my kids were able to grow up making first Communion and attending Sunday School with children of other races and cultures."

Queen of Peace also demonstrates the changing times in the city of Selma, which just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights movement. The president of the Selma City Council, is African American Corey Bowie, who also happens to be grand knight at the Knights of Columbus council at Queen of Peace.

Christine S. Weerts is based in Selma and works in Christian ministry.

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