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Selma Churches Remember a Very Different Palm Sunday 50 Years Ago

Christine S. Weerts

Christine S. Weerts - published on 03/26/15 - updated on 06/07/17

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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