There were about 400 men in attendance on March 17, 1965. The gathering was the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick Annual banquet.
The speaker was the Thomas James Toolen, Archbishop of Mobile, Alabama, which included Selma, the setting of massive civil rights marches which are the subject of the much-hyped new movie produced by Oprah Winfrey.
By this time Archbishop Toolen, whose parents were immigrants from Roscommon, was 79-years-old. Maybe his age influenced what he would say to those gathered on this St. Patrick's Day.
Either way, someone had to say something. It was getting harder and harder to avoid the fact that along with all of the African Americans marching in Selma -- and all across the South -- there were also growing numbers of Catholic priests and nuns.
Archbishop Toolen did not approve.
"Why do priests and sisters come from outside the state and even Canada to take part in these demonstrations?" Toolen asked.
He'd already said that "these demonstrations are not helping things at all," and that Dr. Martin Luther King, the hero of the movie Selma, whose birth we just commemorated on January 19, was "trying to divide the people."
Toolen continued, "Certainly the sisters are out of place in these demonstrations. Their place is at home doing God's work."
As bad as that sounds, at least Toolen added, "I would say the same is true of priests."
Time, of course, would not be kind to Archbishop Toolen. His comments are wrong on so many levels, not least of which is the unavoidable irony that Catholics would soon be leading civil rights marches across Northern Ireland.
But then again, Toolen’s battle with the marching priests and nuns was representative of a battle raging throughout Irish America and the Catholic Church.
On one side were an old guard who prized order and obedience to authority. Even if they supported reform, they felt the best way to achieve that change was through modest and incremental means.
But then there was a younger generation who believed America’s treatment of African-Americans was -- aside from immoral and illegal -- also highly un-Christian. They believed Christ, were he to arrive in Selma in 1965, would be marching right alongside with them.
Toolen stayed on the job until 1969, the year when -- if you were Irish-American -- you had to pick a side. That was when a young, telegenic firebrand from Northern Ireland named Bernadette Devlin toured America to drum up support for Catholic civil rights in Northern Ireland.
The trouble is, Devlin was often at odds with Irish Catholics here in America. Too often, Devlin told uncomfortable crowds that Irish Americans were part of the problem, rather than the solution when it came to liberating America’s oppressed minorities.
In this sense, it is tempting to think of Irish Catholics such as Toolen. But despite his regrettable words at that St. Patrick’s Day function, Toolen’s career -- taken as a whole -- actually reflects an impressive commitment to civil rights.
Keep in mind, Catholics were viewed with immense suspicion in the South in the 1920s. Consider the notorious case of James Coyle, a Roscommon-born priest murdered in Alabama in 1921 by a member of the Ku Klux Klan because he officiated the marriage of the Klan member’s (formerly Methodist) daughter.
It was in this environment that Toolen began serving as archbishop in 1927. He was never what anyone would consider a progressive in race issues. But he did expand services to many African American Catholics in the region, and just one year before his notorious speech, Toolen oversaw the desegregation of Alabama’s Catholic school system.
And yet, when he saw a white priest such as Father Maurice Ouellet grow closer to Dr. King and the civil rights crusade, Toolen became outraged.
"I want Ouellet out of Selma. He is a good priest but crazy on this subject,” Toolen fumed.
In an interview a few years back, Ouellet acknowledged that Toolen’s decision to move him probably saved his life. Then he said about the best thing you could say about Toolen.
"He was a segregationist, but he wasn't a bigot."
*Originally published in January 2015.