The Bridge: Missions connect Saint Michael’s, Selma

July 24, 2015

It’s a small city of storied civil rights actions, tensions and milestones. It’s seen dramatic events, tragedy and triumph.

In Selma, Alabama, there is history. There is hope. And there is unfinished business.

In March, a Jubilee weekend commemorated the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the dramatic 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge that triggered police action and protests. During the weekend, while the nation’s first African-American president and civil rights heroes stirred crowds with their words, the Edmundite Southern Missions kitchen staff in Selma stirred soup for the poor, dedicated as ever to the weekend’s proposition that actions speak louder than words when declaring that “all men are created equal.”

Indeed, life remains hand-to-mouth for many in this economically depressed city. The persevering population around the Edmundite Southern Missions’ gray, single-story Center of Hope on Broad Street in Selma’s historically black part of town long have borne the burden of grinding poverty and prejudice.

Many take heart each morning knowing that this Edmundite outreach, present since the 1930s and linked in spirit and history to Saint Michael’s College, continues to be present in practical, day-to-day ways, as they’ve been for seven decades.

Over the weekend, the Mission proudly announced its slogan, printed on bright blue signs and T-shirts: “Here in 1937, Here in 1965, and Still Here Today.”

The Mission on the Map

The Edmundite Southern Mission’s nerve center is three buildings within roughly a block of each other on Broad Street, the same block where the first two Edmundites established themselves in 1937, answering the Pope’s call to serve the poor and underprivileged. The meandering redbrick Edmundite residence is on the site of the original parish buildings, which were erected that first year.

A section of the old St. Elizabeth’s Church, once the segregated black parish founded by the Edmundites in 1937, is now a chapel for the Edmundites’ community devotions. In 1971, under the leadership of Rev. Nelson Ziter, SSE ’43, Selma’s Catholics were the first denomination to integrate when St. Elizabeth’s merged with the previously all-white Assumption parish about a mile down the road. A local bishop had called upon members of the two parishes, one white, and one black, to integrate into one Catholic family. The new integrated congregation took up formal residence in the historic and beautiful Assumption building, and the parish was renamed Queen of Peace to symbolize the new beginning. While St. Elizabeth’s closed as an active parish, the building remained attached to the Edmundite residence and was put to its new uses.

Rev. Richard Myhalyk, SSE ’66 is now pastor at Queen of Peace, which is home to a committed and close congregation of blacks and whites worshipping warmly together. He’s assisted at Queen of Peace by the newly ordained Edmundite, Rev. Lino Oropeza, SSE ’11, a Venezuelan native who also helps cover satellite parishes in smaller surrounding towns and is deeply involved in the archdiocese’s ministry to Hispanics.

They both live at main residence, as does Fr. Stanley Deresienski, SSE, ’74, whose main responsibility is Saint Joseph in Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. Retired Edmundite Revs. Paul Pinard ’55 and Joseph Hart ’51 also live in the residence. These resident Edmundites’ parish pastoral ministry sites include other needy surrounding rural areas: Immaculate Conception in Orrville, Alabama, and Saint John the Baptist in Montgomery

“Do the best we can, with what little we have, to serve those most in need.”

Edmundite Southern Missions Executive Director/CEO Chad McEachern ’91 is the Missions’ first lay director, taking over from Myhalyk in 2012. Much like in his experience as a student and alumnus at Saint Michael’s, McEachern says, the Missions are about committing to individuals for the long haul by meeting human and spiritual needs and encouraging community members along a hopeful, just and fulfilling life course.

With changing times have come changing strategies to optimize limited resources, McEachern says, though the Gospel core values remain the same as those instilled by Missions founder Rev. Frank Casey, SSE in 1937: “Do the best we can, with what little we have, to serve those most in need.”

Both McEachern and Very Rev. Steven Hornat ’72, the Edmundite Superior General who served in Selma for nearly 15 years, say the Missions, like the Edmundites themselves, always have been about responding fluidly to changing needs of the neediest, meeting them where they live and ever recalibrating.

Until recent years, the Edmundite Southern Missions’ reach extended to urban New Orleans, and in much earlier days, to remote rural parishes down by Mobile Bay, and to Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Most of that came as a response to a call by Pope Pius XI in 1936 for American religious to start missions among poor blacks across the South.

But, as Rev. Paul McQuillen, SSE ’72, who runs City of St. Jude Parish in nearby Montgomery, noted at a talk during the Jubilee banquet, the Edmundites today number fewer than 40 worldwide. Therefore, great faith and increased lay help is demanded to keep such expansive and important work going.

It is a necessity, but also a rich part of McEachern’s ministry, that today most staff carrying out the Missions’ work are lay persons, including many local community members who often change their own lives for the better by the simple gift of having regular and meaningful work.

While not a priest, McEachern is seen by others, and sees himself, as entirely Edmundite in mind and soul. Moving quickly around the main Mission offices and then the Nutrition Center on the Friday before the Jubilee weekend, he put clients and staff immediately at ease with his upbeat personal interactions, good-natured joking and direct and professional arrival to the heart of a matter.

On this and every day, he and his staff prioritize paying attention to efficiency and professionalism that honor both the generous supporters of the Missions and the dignity of clients.

Feeding Hope

The entire multi-building Missions enterprise exists right across the railroad tracks from downtown, under a landmark green water tower with the words “Selma: A nice place to live” painted on it, surrounded by abandoned buildings, fast-food joints, bail-bond and quick-loan operations.

Across the street, about a block in one direction from the main Edmundite residence, sits the relatively new Center of Hope, built in 2010. Across the street to the left, about the same distance away, are the Mission’s main administrative offices where McEachern has his office. For decades, this mostly single-story street-corner collection of older buildings, filled with offices and storerooms and activity rooms, has been part of the Missions’ work, too.

In front of the Center of Hope, McEachern recently installed a black statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Inside the building, there’s a large kitchen area, a dining room with new round tables, and a vehicle bay for the vans that deliver meals to the home-bound, plus offices and storage. They serve free lunch and dinner daily from there, as well as distribute clothing and provide education and work programs. McEachern estimates the Missions’ work today includes 1,000 free meals a day (lunch and dinner) served at the Center of Hope, with 300 delivered to the homebound each day, 365 days a year.

The Present and The Past

McEachern is just the eighth director since 1937 when Saint Michael’s-trained Rev. Francis Casey, SSE ’32 and Rev. John Paro, SSE drove down from Vermont with a Pontiac and $50. Rev. Casey’s successors include Rev. Norman Lambert ’37 (1946-1956), Rev. Eymard Galligan ’43 (1956-1964), Rev. John Crowley ’48 (1964-1970), Rev. Paul Morin ’36 (1970-1980), Rev. Roger LaCharite ’51 (1980-2006) and Rev. Richard Myhalyk ’66 (2006-2012).

McEachern began his directorship after a career as a fundraiser in Boston and Wisconsin. He headed south at the Edmundites’ invitation, and considers the work a vocation and calling. A native Vermonter, he has known and been inspired by Edmundites since he was a first-year student at age 17, he says, and  can think of no better preparation for his present work than his college experiences as an example of meaningful community in action.

Hornat says these are the types of relationships he thinks are so important for Saint Michael’s to continue, and he is actively supporting measures to make that happen.

While the dwindling number of Edmundites is a concern for the future of projects like the Missions, the youngest among them, Father Oropeza, is philosophical. He says while it’s not his expectation in any way, even if many decades down the road, “God saw fit that the Edmundites would go away,” their work and legacy would endure proudly, with lay people carrying on, through Saint Michael’s College and the Missions.

McEachern agrees. “There are times when I see these good-hearted and in many ways heroic servants of the Gospel getting a little more frail, and my heart gets heavy for a moment — but then I get reinvigorated too, and I say, “OK, we’ve got a lot to do here! Let’s figure it out and make it solid.”

Sidebar story: Edmundite Missions are about people

Everyone involved with the Missions agrees that, in the end, the work being done is about the people whose lives it changes — both the servants and the served. Some are in Selma, some now back at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont. A few snapshots:

Levi Varner, a lifelong Selma resident, was with his brother in the first kindergarten class offered through the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Rochester, working alongside the Edmundites, in 1940 — a point he proved by showing a photo of that class reprinted in the banquet program during Sunday’s Jubilee in March, seeing as he was a special guest. A retired auto mechanic, Varner recounted memories of neighbors bringing laundry to boil in front of the Missions when he was  a child, and of  a relatively speedy car the priests had that made an impression on him even then, since it was such a rarity on his side of the tracks in those days.

Alice Mims, assistant to McEachern, grew up in Selma. She’s indispensable to him now, an example of a resident for whom a job with the Missions has made all the difference. The offices now employ up to 40 people. Alice’s elderly parents are in very poor health. “I said to Alice, let’s put your parents on this delivery — that way we’ll have testers out in the field to let us know what the food is like,” McEachern says — so the Missions started delivering meals to them, and as with other homebound neighbors, “now their health problems are markedly reduced since they’re eating nutritious food regularly. It makes a difference,” he says.

One Center of Hope client named Rasheed says on a video for the Missions that growing up in Selma, he observed civil rights activism, “got taste of tear-gas as a little boy,” can recall the Klan  dropping teargas in his yard when he was in 5th grade,  “and once they came out and shot up every room but where the kids was —  but I survived integration, went to the University of Alabama, and it all comes from what I saw in Selma, people constantly encouraging you to be the  best you can be.” But then his mother died, he abruptly left home and hit hard times on the street, “and someone reminded me they serve food at the Bosco … and I’ve been coming ever since,” Rasheed says. “You’re treated so great …. What I found was a family atmosphere. They give people who are down a dignity, as if they’re saying ‘we know you’re somebody.’ Even people on the streets have dignity but they feel guilty having to ask for something. But when they come through that door they know they don’t have to ask for nothing — that goes a long way to making them come back … Without this place we’d have a lot of tragedy in this community. This is one of the jewels in my city. As a human being I love them, and as a person who wants to see success, we need them.”

A worker in the Center’s kitchen, doing serving and clearing for several years, is 28-year old Brandon. He tells of his life being changed by a simple thing: he experimented with a bread pudding recipe in the kitchen that became somewhat famously popular among clients for being so good. So once at an event in the dining room for some local officials, Brandon received surprise recognition from the diners and some local officials for the fine dessert. In the end, he came up to McEachern almost in tears, the director relates, and said it was “the best night of his life.” “I never knew I could matter,” Brandon told McEachern. At the Jubilee banquet on Sunday that he was helping serve and clear for, he got another hearty ovation after his story was shared.

Heidi St. Peter ’96 carries the legacy of Selma into her work on campus today, as longtime director of MOVE volunteer service and now assistant director of Academic Support Services. “I was fortunate enough to be part of the Edmundite Mission Corps with Fr. Steve Hornat right after graduating from Saint Mike’s from 1996-97.  While there, I was a 5th grade language arts teacher at a local elementary school and worked at an after school program in the east end of Selma,” she recalled. “My time in Selma taught me about myself, who I wanted to be and how I wanted to be in the world.  It broadened my perspective, allowed me to connect with and learn from amazing people, and pushed me to live out my faith in a new way every day.  My experience challenged what I had always assumed to be true, and the Edmundites provided a comfortable space to reflect and engage in conversations about meaningful things.” St. Peter said she was able to return to Selma multiple times after leaving, with Saint Michael’s students through MOVE as well as with Rice High School students.   “During one of those times, the group had the chance to sit and talk with Fr. Maurice Ouellet.  What an amazing presence he was!  Humble, kind, and so connected with the people of Selma and their struggles. We all felt we were sitting with a hero, a saint, really; just such an aware, generous spirit. It has always been a gift to share a little of the Edmundite legacy with others – maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m still at Saint Michael’s.  Their present-day mission there has its founding in such rich history.”

Meghan “MJ” Jaird ’10, now a Saint Michael’s admission counselor, participated in a 10-month internship with the Edmundite Southern Missions between in 2010-11, starting in development and morphing into more “community engagement,” she said.   With Edmundite support and guidance, she developed a leadership council for middle schoolers and a homework club and art program for elementary students,  assisted rural sites in implementing and evaluating senior programming and food distribution efforts, partnered with community members to identify needs through a community needs assessment tool, coordinated and hosted two Saint Michael’s College volunteer groups and service-learning courses, and designed a comprehensive strategy to recruit, orient, oversee, and evaluate future interns, while also promoting awareness about the Edmundite Missions legacy. MJ says she originally learned of Selma through Peace and Justice Center Director Laurie Gagne upon her return from a conference there in fall 2009.  She had presented on Catholic Social Teaching and was very moved by the Edmundites’ work in the Deep South, she says, adding, “I still communicate with community members there, and in fact, returned during Thanksgiving 2012 to help with some of the community programming.”

Read another sidebar story: A weekend to remember before marching on

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