While watching the tributes to John Lewis on the occasion of his death, I recall his visit to Vermont in 2007 when he was the commencement speaker and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Vermont. At that time, I was a member of the UVM board of trustees. The evening before graduation, as was traditional, there was a dinner for the trustees, the honorary degree recipients, the president and other senior officials at UVM.
By a stroke of random luck, I was seated at the same table with John Lewis. In a feeble effort to make small talk with a Vermont connection, I asked Congressman Lewis if he had ever met a Catholic priest in Selma, Alabama, by the name of Father Maurice Ouellet. His eyes opened wide and he said, “Father Ouellet, Maurice Ouellet, did I know him? Do I remember him! How could I ever forget him! He was the bravest white man I ever met in the South!” He laughed and he said, “Martin always said he was the whitest black man in all of Alabama.”
I later read in a story about Father Ouellet in Selma that he once responded to a knock on the rectory door and found Martin Luther King standing there. King greeted him and said, “The Negro people tell me there is one white man in Selma who is black, and I want to meet him.”
All of this needs context. Father Ouellet, a native of St. Albans, Vermont, was a member of the Society of St. Edmund, a Catholic order which had ministered to Black Catholics in Selma and other southern communities since the 1930s. Father Ouellet was pastor of St. Elizabeth’s Church in Selma in the mid-1960s, and was very active in supporting the civil rights movement, including the Freedom Riders, often hosting white civil rights workers from the north, arranging for them to stay with parish families and even opening the rectory and parish hall to them. The Catholic Bishop in Alabama — his name was Thomas Toolin — had ordered the Edmundites, specifically Ouellet, not to participate in civil right protests and activities. He expressly forbade Ouellet from hosting the northern visitors, and he went so far as to order the Superior General of the Edmundites to transfer Father Ouellet from Alabama. Bishop Toolin later explained that he took this action, not because he was opposed to the civil rights movement but because he feared Father Ouellet would be killed. In fact, there were many threats on his life.
The infamous Bloody Sunday March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge when John Lewis was attacked by police and had his skull fractured, took place in March 1965, shortly before Maurice Ouellet was exiled from Selma.
John Lewis told me at the UVM dinner that the first person he remembers seeing in the hospital emergency room that day was Father Maurice Ouellet, holding his hand.
Lewis asked me if I knew Father Ouellet, and I told him that he was from Vermont and I had met him when he directed the graduate program in psychology at Saint Michael’s College, but that I really didn’t know him. He asked if he still lived in Vermont, telling me that he would love to see him again and thank him for all he did to help the cause. I later learned that Father Ouellet died in 2011 in Selma, having returned from exile in 2003 to live there in a retirement home the Edmundites had for some of their older priests who had served in their southern ‘missions.’ How ironic.
If only I had known who my dinner partner would be that evening and his connection with Father Ouellet, a Vermonter, I would have been better prepared. As it turned out, even in his absence, Maurice Ouellet was another guest at the table that night. Though unplanned, I was privileged to break bread with a great man, John Lewis, a true servant leader — humble, saintly and unbending to the end, and to learn about the greatness and goodness of Maurice Ouellet, a Vermonter who came home to be buried in St. Albans with his parents. It was quite a night.
Jim Leddy served several terms as a Vermont state senator, Howard Center executive director and AARP Vermont president. He lives in Colchester.