BY TONI CASHNELLI
It has always embodied the scrappy spirit of New Orleans.
St. Mary of the Angels has weathered a Depression, World War II, desegregation, social upheaval and two devastating floods. Since their first Mass in a three-room house in 1925, friars have helped steer the parish through decades of challenge
This weekend Provincial Vicar Frank Jasper will join parishioners and resident friars Dennis Bosse, Mark Gehret and Andrew Stettler as they celebrate the 90th anniversary of a worship community that has endured against all odds.
We invited friars who’ve served there to share their memories of the ministry on North Miro Street.
If I had to put it in one phrase, it would be the total commitment of people to that parish. It didn’t seem to have much of a future when Bart [Pax] came back after Hurricane Katrina. The people put it together and started rebuilding the spirit of the parish. That’s what they were committed to. I’m grateful for the fact that they took me in. Bart was deeply loved by the people, he could do no wrong. They had to switch that allegiance from Bart to me and they did, in a very honest way. When I left and was diagnosed with cancer, many took time to write me and encourage me, telling me they were praying for me.
When St. Mary of the Angels celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1975. Fr. Ron Nunlist and I planned a number of activities. One was a procession from the church to the house on Congress Street where the first parish Mass was celebrated. The day came; the people did not. Fr. Ron and myself and a cross and three altar boys made up the procession. We did have two police cars with flashing lights to accompany us. So we walked a couple blocks down and had Mass in this particular home.
The problem was this meant nothing to the black people who were our parishioners. [In the early years] The parish was white and they weren’t welcome there. [For them] The celebration had to do with years of segregation when they could not be full members of the parish.
One of the other activities we had at this particular period, a ladies’ tea, was somewhat successful. The black ladies of St. Mary of the Angels invited the white ladies who used to be parishioners to come to tea. We had little tables in the courtyard. They had long discussions about the past. I think it was a healing time. [For our parishioners] The founding of the church wasn’t as interesting as getting together for this tea.
The people of the parish and of New Orleans have always been attractive to me with their Southern friendliness; no one is a stranger to them. It is a very unique city with a unique culture. And the members of SMA are a microcosm of the city in that they really love their New Orleans Saints.
Obviously, there is a difference now with the school and the church since Hurricane Katrina. The school is no longer a grade school and the parish’s numbers, because of relocation, are nowhere near what they were pre-Katrina. But it is a place that I feel really fits the Franciscan charism because of that. SMA and New Orleans will always have a special place in my heart.
St. Mary of the Angels is a special place for me, where I did my year out in the province, did my solemn profession, and served as an associate pastor for three years, culminating in going through Katrina with marginalized but courageous people and my brothers, Bart Pax and Tony Walter. In a way, having everything disappear helped move my life in a different way. My life began again.
No less than three weeks before the hurricane we had celebrated the 80th anniversary of St. Mary of the Angels. Tony Walter, OFMWe had taken a boat tour up and down the Mississippi; the whole parish came. I remember that big celebration. To have that [Katrina] happen three weeks later was traumatic.
I enjoyed my years at SMA; I treasure the people there. Although quite shy, I easily enough became friends with a number of the parish members. I looked up to some deeply holy persons. Besides that, the school children delighted me. Luckily for me, I had a chance to make some drawings for the church. I did some singing in church. In the house I counted the meals there as outstanding. Now and then someone played Scrabble with me. All in all, St. Mary of the Angels ranks as a prize home for me before and after Hurricane Katrina.
It was Fr. Chris Schneider who got me there. I was at Duns Scotus for 15 years in the poverty program and felt a call to a new place and a new ministry. I got a letter from Chris: “Why don’t you come to St. Mary of the Angels and help develop a CCD program?” They already had it but he wanted to build it up.
That was my first ministry, in the CCD program, working with the children. After a year or so Fr. Chris was moved and Fr. Dennet [Jung] took over. I got a chance to take most of what Chris had been doing, not the priestly work, but visiting and taking communion to the homebound, visiting hospitals and nursing homes. I went out practically every day. We had about 50 homebound people and that gave me a chance to really get acquainted with the elderly people. I really got close to those good people. I enjoyed that part of the ministry. We always say we’re giving of ourselves in this particular ministry, but the elderly people I ran into gave back to me more than I gave them. There were some beautiful people, an inspiration for me.
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I was 24 years old when I went there. I had a good time down there. I dearly loved the people and loved what I was doing.
The big thing was the students in the school. I had more fun with those kids. I taught religion and had a home room (grades 4-6). One thing is, when you’re teaching you never know how you’re going to affect the kids. Every once in a while after all these years one of those students will call me.
What I remember is being Santa Claus. At Christmas time we walked down to where the Marianites of the Holy Cross, who were staffing our school, also had a girls’ academy. As Santa Claus I led the parade: I’m ringing the school bell and we’re singing and people on the street are singing along with us. [When we got to the girls’ school] One of the sisters said, “Brother Santa, didn’t those children tell you anything?” I’m walking through the girls’ school and the suspenders had let go of my pants. They’re seeing my behind, the pillow I was using for padding and the belt holding it on. The kindergarten kids behind me were giggling and having the best time. I turned every color in the rainbow.
There was some excitement there. One thing I remember is we had a couple of leaks in the church roof and found out it was bullets. We took six bullets out of the church roof, two out of the convent and one through the window of the school. You know how people on the street fire guns up in the air? Those things come down somewhere. Once a guy was firing up in the air and the bullet hit another guy on the bone below the eye.
It’s a big-heart parish. It’s family-oriented; people know and welcome each other. Mass lasts longer. There’s an energetic choir; they really get into it. People who feel moved participate with their bodies as they’re singing along. We have one little boy 2 or 3 years old
– Sr. Daria Mitchell, OSF
A three-room house on Congress Street was the site of the first Mass.
Dennet Jung, OFMand he just runs up and down the aisles. It’s neat to see the kids and the young families. At a lot of places it [Mass] is like a funeral; people don’t participate. It gets me out of my comfort zone in the way I was churched. It’s down-to-earth and very people oriented.
This parish is as Franciscan as you can get. Franciscans started this in 1925; a lot of friars have been down there. That’s a pretty powerful thing. We’re the only Franciscan church in the area: There aren’t any Conventuals or Capuchins. We’ve been here since the beginning. There’s a rich and long history.
Simply being installed as Pastor in April 2011, that was memorable. With the 90th anniversary coming up, that’s gonna be memorable. When I came here to fill in for Bart, the parish was still getting back on its feet in terms of there being only one Mass; now there’s two. We probably on the weekend get about 240 people. It was probably twice that size prior to Katrina; they had three Masses here. Since Katrina we have more commuter parishioners than neighborhood parishioners.
I’ve learned a lot being here. The biggest challenge in the future is the fact that you have the older generation financially supporting the parish. With the younger generation it’s different priorities. The other challenge is for people themselves here to take responsibility for their parish. Friars come and go, but parishioners are always gonna be here.
In the midst of the 90-year period that has seen social upheaval, violent winds, and surging flood waters, SMA has become a symbol of survival, thanks to the spirit, soul, and song of its prayerful and persevering parishioners.
BY ANDRE MCGRATH, OFM
The coming months will be a time to focus on formation and interprovincial endeavors. ﾠOn Sunday, Aug. 2, the Feast of the Portiuncula, the novices at our common novitiate in Burlington, Wis., will profess their first vows. ﾠThough SJB has no novices this year, I will be present to support this interprovincial program and participate in our annual meeting on the interprovincial temporary professed program. ﾠOn Saturday, Aug. 15, the Feast of the Assumption, I will return to Burlington to receive John Boissy, Jonathon Douglas, Tom Murphy, and Carlo Shivel into the novitiate.
This year’s annual meeting of the Provincials, Secretaries for Formation, and the novitiate team will be an extended one, and will take place after the U.S. Councils meeting in Techny, Ill. ﾠThe U.S. Councils meeting is Aug. 16-19 (more about that later), and the Novitiate meeting is Aug. 19-20. ﾠOn Labor Day we will welcome Dan Ward into postulancy for SJB; OLG will be sending Andrew Koon to participate in our Postulancy program. We are glad that we can collaborate with OLG in this program since we each only have one postulant entering this year. Thanks for your support of our new brothers, and let’s keep sharing the joy of the Gospel, and inviting brothers to “come and see” our way of life.
— Fr. Jeff Scheeler, OFM
Al Hirt, OFM
FRANCISCAN MONASTERY PHOTO
There was cultural awareness and a lot of fun at
the Holy Land Festival.
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