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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My mother and her Catholic friends from Maxwell AFB and the Gunter annex help support Fr Mike’s home for boys with yearly fall festivals that my brothers and I would attend and help out at. I have fond memories of walking around the many booths… My family manned the “Fishing over the sheet” booth. Many cakes and goodies were made. She was devistated when Fr Mike was murdered.
I was one of the boys that was at the school. But I left to go home that June of 1971. I knew the guy that murdered him.That was just awful of him to do that.He didn’t have to kill him.He was a good man.Took us in and loved us dearly. We were one big happy family.What he did for us was unheard of doing those times.I loved that man. He was my friend. The reason I am the man I am today. I always had the intention of returning to see him but then this.And after all these years it’s still hard to believe.Yes I remember the festival that was a very fun time of year.Well I can go on for ever thinking about Father Michael Caswell & Our Lady of Fatima.Even now I’m still sick over what happened to him.It’s just sad and sickening.May he RIP
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Hi Walter my name is John Willis. Me and my brother Ronnie Willis was at our lady of Fatima when you were. Just wondering if you remember us. My brother Ronnie says he remembers you. Thanks
Let us know when the next festival is my brother Walter and I will try to attend.
Fr Caswell came to my mind (I have no idea why) this evening so I was glad to find this article. He was the priest at the Gunter AFB chapel when I was a child and teen (1950’s and 60’s). Our family respected all his efforts!! FYI: I shared the link on the FB page: Times Gone By – History of Montgomery, Alabama.
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I’d like to talk
I never met Father Mike but heard about his orphanage during my years at Squadron Officer School (SOS) at Maxwell AFB, AL. from 1964 to 1970. At the end of each class we asked our students to bring in all their leftover canned goods and other food items and we loaded this stuff into a truck in the parking lot. The food was then delivered to Father Mike. I think we had three classes a year so three truckloads went to Father Mike each year. I don’t know how many years this happened, but a lot of food from SOS went to Father Mike. When I went back to Maxwell AFB to the Air War College in 1974-1975, my son was involved in a scout troop in East Montgomery. One weekend we went on a campout to a facility east of the city and it appeared to be an abandoned campus of some sort. There was an old house, a gym and what appeared to be a barracks building. I asked one of the local scoutmasters if he knew what this place had been and he said Father Mike’s orphanage. He then told me that Father Mike had been murdered. . What a very sad story. Father Mike must have been a wonderful man do9ng wonderful work that was badly needed.
DearRichard,Thank you for your letter. I like remembering Fr Mike. Just a few people left who knew him. I talk to one of the orphans regularly. He truly loved Father Mike and told me that Father never thought of himself. He remembers the night Father was murdered. The orphanage was abandoned but a probation officer sued the state to integrate orphanages. There was nobody as humble and loving as Father Mike. He never turned a boy away and kept brothers together. You can talk to him anytime. We Catholics ask saints to pray for us and Father listens!
Thank you Foster for this page
My folks volunteered at Our Lady of Fatima, my Dad in the mid-’50s and my Mom came with him in the late ’50s and they were there in the very early ’60s. Father Michael baptized me and I only have pictures and first names to reference those times. He was a pivotal force in our family. I am visiting Montgomery this January and I am wondering if any markers of the home still exist or if directions can be shared. I’ve looked up a number of reference materials but can’t find an address. Thank you.
Seems like Fr Mike’s Boy’s Home was in Mt Meigs, very near Montgomery going east I think. Montgomery has grown east, so there might just be a sub-divison there now. Just guessing!
Thank you, in looking at old news stories–I see that Rhyne Road was mentioned as being behind the property and that it was also close to Vaughn Road in Mount Meigs.
I have about 150 now digitized slides of “Our Lady of Fatima”–late 50’s early 60’s and wondering if anyone or any entity would have an interest in those. Thank you all.
Yes I would
Cindy. I can send the link to you at anytime. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org and phone is 719. 251 2888