Alabamiana: Fr. Michael Caswell, 1909 – 1971
The opening two paragraphs of the verdict in the convicted killer William Simpson’s appeal read like this:
December 12, 1971, the body of Father Michael Caswell was found in some woods near Our Lady of Fatima School in eastern Montgomery County. Father Caswell was in charge of the school which apparently boarded problem boys. His death was caused by strangulation. His body had abrasions, bruises and lacerations, as though it had been dragged. A green cord was around Father Caswell’s neck.
A tractor, belonging to the school, was examined and blood was found on the bushhog attached to the tractor.
It’s a gruesome thing to read: a white Catholic priest, who had dedicated his life to helping troubled black boys, was killed just before Christmas, and his body left in the Alabama woods.
This unseemly end is a far cry from the way The Southern Courier wrote up Father Michael Caswell’s efforts five years earlier. The Civil Rights-minded newspaper’s April 16-17, 1966 issue features the community on page four in “A Family of 40 Young Boys.” Fr. Caswell had begun building Our Lady of Fatima in 1949, the article says, and “it is the only orphanage in the state for teenage Negro boys.” At that point, the only orphanages in the state for blacks over age 12 were both Catholic, one in Mobile and the other, Our Lady of Fatima. Caswell’s operation was admittedly ill-funded and short-staffed, but it was full of hope and better than nothing.
Michael Caswell was born in Kentucky in 1909. His parents, Joseph and Louise (Vowells) Caswell, lived in Louisville. As a boy, he must’ve gone by his middle name, Eugene, since the 1910 and 1920 censuses list him that way. In 1910, his parents were living with his mother’s family, the Vowells, who were Irish immigrants; Joseph Caswell worked as a telegraph dispatcher for the railroad. By 1920, the growing family was in their own home on Bonnycastle Street with now six, rather than only two, children.
Caswell was ordained in 1937, and after serving as an assistant pastor at Holy Family Catholic Church in Ensley, a working-class suburb of Birmingham, he came to Montgomery to create what he hoped to be a “New Boys’ Town for Negroes,” according to an August 1950 United Press wire story.
In Alabama after World War II and before the Civil Rights movement, Fr. Caswell wouldn’t have gotten much help. However, for more than two decades, Michael Caswell managed to champion a cause that few others would: troubled black young men.
Though Rev. Robert Graetz is typically given the distinction of being the only white minister to support the Montgomery bus boycott in the mid-1950s, a search of Getty Images archives shows Caswell was in the mix, too. Likewise, the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities’ entry on Montgomery tells us more:
Through his involvement with King, [Rabbi Seymour] Atlas came to empathize with the cause of the boycott. In 1956, as part of Brotherhood week, Atlas agreed to speak on a panel of clergy at WRMA, a local radio station. Reverend Roy Bennett, an African American minister, and Father Michael Caswell, a white priest at Gunter Air Force Base, joined him. The broadcast occurred at the height of the boycott.
For a Southern man, Caswell had an uncommon lack of traditional racism, and was willing to speak out against Jim Crow and to harbor some of Jim Crow society’s lowliest cast-offs.
Yet, despite his belief that “even the worst kid needs a place to live,” a mid-December 1971 AP wire story tells us about the two young men who killed him: 18-year-old Harold Worsham, who lived at Our Lady of Fatima, and 20-year-old William Simpson, who had lived there but was now a janitor. The sheriff’s office told the media that “the slaying followed an argument over a tractor that the youth [Simpson] had been using to visit a girlfriend.” That above-mentioned appeals verdict explains that Worsham put the cord around Caswell’s neck and strangled him, and Simpson used the tractor to dispose of his body.
In that AP wire story, a local circuit judge described Caswell as “a godly man, quiet, unassuming, who would take the worst human being under his wing and try to help him,” and that “he would ‘take in any kid, no matter how mean or nasty. He in no way screened the boys he admitted to the school.'” In the article’s closing paragraph, the bishop who conducted the funeral acknowledged, “He did it all on his own.”
Our Lady of Fatima was closed in 1972, after Caswell’s death. The fact that no one else took up the mantle says even more about his uncommon charity. And though it is easy to see the negative side of the tragedy, some good may have come of the closure. Even into the early 1970s, Alabama’s orphanages were still segregated by race. In Montgomery that meant that white orphans went to Brantwood, and black to Our Lady of Fatima. However, with the closure, there was nowhere to send black teenage orphans. Thus, a probation officer named Denny Abbott sued twice on behalf of black minors who had no place to go, and was consequently reprimanded then fired by an Alabama judge. Abbott’s legal efforts ultimately opened the way for the integration of orphanages in the state.
Fr. Michael Caswell is buried in Montgomery’s Catholic cemetery, St. Margaret’s, which is adjacent to historic Oakwood Cemetery.
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