Father Steve Hornat, SSE '72 visits with old friends in downtown Selma prior to the March Jubilee; below, the priest looks at some posters at a street fair the same weekend; and Bernard Lafayette, civil rights pioneer and Saint Michael's Commencement Speaker in May, enters the Selma Civic Center for a program on the day President Obama spoke.
(A version of this story appeared in the Summer 2015 Saint Michael's College Magazine as a sidebar to the main feature on the Edmundite Southern Missions, which can be read in this online news feed too).
Selma’s Bloody Sunday 50th Anniversary Jubilee in March attracted not only President Barack Obama, many political dignitaries and performing artists, but also tens of thousands of ordinary pilgrims from all over the U.S. and the world, gathering shoulder-shoulder, literally and figuratively.
For Edmundite Superior General Rev. Steven Hornat, SSE ’74, it was important to be among them.
For about a decade, Hornat was pastor of Queen of Peace Parish in Selma, and before that, in the 1990s, he founded the Edmundite Mission Corps. For a decade, from 1994 to 2004, through the Mission Corps, Saint Michael’s students performed service work in the town.
Selma, he says, is really a small town with a population of about 20,000. It’s easy to bump into those you know. He readily admits that while he enjoys his work in Vermont, his heart stayed behind with the Missions when he left.
Hornat came back to Selma, he said, “given the involvement of the Edmundite community back in the 1960s.” He wanted to support not only his own parish community from his pastor days, “but also the wider cause of the African American community; to celebrate with them.”
On that Friday, Hornat barely could walk a block without a warm greeting from some of his mostly African-American onetime parishioners who encountered him by chance: “Hey Father, what are you doing here? Welcome back!” several friends shouted across the street, or asked as they shook his hand to chat. “I still need to go to confession!” That could be arranged, he said with a smile. He walked alongside schoolchildren doing a reenactment the crossing of the closed-off Pettus Bridge, talking with them. Many were students of the middle school that he hopes to help with new school-based programs through the Missions.
During the Jubilee Weekend, while daily meals and other sustaining activities never subsided at the Edmundite Mission site, leaders took stock of the Edmundites’ many good works of charity, activism and parish ministry here, past and present, and charted its best course forward.
Celebrations for the March weekend included special Masses at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Selma’s only Catholic parish, and a Sunday banquet at the Center of Hope’s dining area. Honored guests included religious sisters who worked alongside the Edmundites for decades, the Vatterott family of Saint Louis who helped fund important civil rights actions in the 1960s; and Luci Baines Johnson, the youngest daughter of President Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. At the brunch, Johnson recalled that the signing ceremony, which she witnessed as a teenager, was largely a result of what happened in Selma during the 1960, when Edmundites like Father Maurice Ouellet '48 took principled stands and actions on behalf of their neighbors.
Over the weekend, a favorite story was repeated a few times at Edmundite events or in articles about them. They recalled an historical account of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knocking on the Missions’ door in 1965 wanting to meet a priest, Father Ouellet, whom he’d heard so much about. “I was told there was one decent white man in this town,” King reportedly said to Ouellet, “and I wanted to meet him.”
For more about the fascinating history of Father Ouellet and other Edmundites’ work for civil rights in Selma, visit the Edmundite Southern Missions sites (link above), or read two fascinating and comprehensive accounts of that history by historian Paul Murray – one in National Catholic Reporter just before the jubilee:
And the longer work upon which that article was based in Alabama Review in January 2015:
Also, Bernard Lafayette, who was the 2015 Commencement speaker at Saint Michael's, references Father Ouellet several times at some length in his recent book In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma as well.