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Catholic Colleges & Universities

Jewels of Southern Catholicism

New Orleans

Not every archive is stuffy. The new Center for the Study of Catholics in the South at Loyola University, New Orleans, offers scholarly research material, but just as important, it preserves the lives of Catholic Southerners for future generations. The center is inviting scholars and the public to help identify and document the vibrant faith and colorful activities unique to Southern Catholic life.

Like what, for instance?

Picture it. Sicily. The Middle Ages. St. Joseph hears the pleas of a famine-plagued community. The famine ends. In gratitude and celebration, the people take the best foods from their harvest and build an altar to their patron saint. They then distribute the food to needy visitors.

A few centuries later, when Sicilians emigrate to the New World, specifically to New Orleans, they take the memory of St. Joseph’s mercy with them, along with distinctive Sicilian recipes and a unique tradition of altar-building.

These days, during the week leading up to St. Joseph’s Day on March 19, the New Orleans Times Picayune announces when and where the public can view “St. Joseph Altars,” constructed and displayed by Sicilian descendents who greet strangers at the front door and invite them into the house to appreciate.

The altars are large, sometimes huge -- taking up entire walls of living rooms or even the entire living room itself. The colorful concoctions of popular piety include crusty Italian bread, wine, cakes and cookies, flowers and fruit, candles, and dried vicia fava, beans that symbolize survival. The beans are blessed and given to visitors, or thrown, Mardi Gras-style, to St. Joseph Day parade spectators. The candles are sometimes kept to light when hurricane season descends with force in September and October.

Like the Italian population in New Orleans itself, nothing about the St. Joseph’s Altar is without symbolism and deep meaning for those who carry on the tradition. But wait, there’s more.

Picture it (again). Sicily (where else?). 1623. St. Rosalie gazes upon a cholera-plagued crowd and encourages a local woman, Girolama Gatto, to find blessed Rosalie’s tomb. Poor Girolama can’t find it, but a few months later some townspeople find bones believed to be those of St. Rosalie, place them in a reliquary, and carry them in loving procession through Palermo. The plague stops. In gratitude and celebration, they annually carry Rosalie, or what’s left of her, through the streets.

So naturally, when Sicilian emigrants reached New Orleans, the spirit of St. Rosalie, and the tradition of transporting her through the town, was with them. Today, Italian New Orleanians annually hoist a life-sized statue of St. Rosalie on their shoulders and carry her in procession through the crowded streets, where local and tourist traffic stops for the duration. Catholic tourists sit in their cars, trying to figure out which saint they’re seeing. Non-Catholic tourists sit gape-mouthed. After nodding their respects, the locals make cell phone calls and straighten their hair in the rearview mirror.

Such jewels sparkle in the crown of Southern Catholicism, whose tradition is made rich not only by Italians, but also by French, Irish, Germans, Canadians, Latin Americans and many other groups. It is these groups and their traditions that the Center for the Study of Catholics in the South, located in the archives of Loyola University New Orleans, hopes to preserve.

“Over 8 million Catholics reside in the South, approximately one-ninth of all Southerners and, similarly, one-ninth of all American Catholics,” says center director David Estes. In fact, the number of Catholics as a percentage of the Southern population has nearly tripled in the last three decades. The South is home to large concentrations of African-American, Cajun and Creole Catholics, as well as significant numbers of Catholic immigrants from the Caribbean, Latin America and Vietnam. The Center for the Study of Catholics in the South plans oral history projects that will preserve the experiences of these groups.

The first project was a C-Span broadcast appearance last spring by former Ambassador to the Vatican and former U.S. Congresswoman Lindy Boggs. Titled “A Catholic Woman: Life in Politics and International Affairs,” the program featured a seasoned Boggs recounting her childhood on a plantation in New Roads, La., her years as wife of U.S. Congressman Hale Boggs and mother of their children, her four years as ambassador to the Holy See, and her own 17 years in Congress.

Boggs said that many women, for all their belle-ringing, are indeed steel magnolias. Empowered by her service on the House Appropriations Committee, she drafted banking legislation making credit accessible to women. At the time, women were required to rely upon a husband’s income in applying for loans. When Boggs retired and decided to purchase a condominium, she encountered a bank officer who followed the old guidelines concerning credit for women and demanded additional support documents before granting her a loan. She gently informed the officer of her role in drafting equal-access legislation.

St. Joseph, St. Rosalie and Lindy Boggs are only three of the many famous names contained in the center’s archives, where students and scholars of the Catholic South can look up all sorts of interesting tidbits on fascinating people. The center’s mission includes promoting scholarship on Southern Catholicism and sponsoring programs for the general public that foster a deeper understanding of Catholic institutions, individuals and ethnic groups in the South, a region generally associated with Protestantism, evangelism, and TV evangelism.

In the 1970s, religious scholars studied evangelism in the South, Estes explains. In the 1980s, scholars focused on Southern cultures that were African-American. Roman Catholicism in the South has not been systematically documented and studied, until now.

“We’re arguing that Southerners are Protestant and Catholic,” says Estes. The center will document the lives and faith expressions of Catholics through immigration records, oral histories and ethnographies. Other archival holdings document the involvement of Catholics in literature and the arts, environmental issues and politics.

The center is housed in Loyola University New Orleans’ recently completed J. Edgar and Louise S. Monroe Library. Researchers can explore the archives from the comfort of a warmly colored wood-paneled room that is at once friendly and quiet.

The center also is expanding public access to a significant collection of historical documents concerning the university’s founding fathers, the Jesuits. The collection includes the complete records of the 10-state New Orleans Province of the Society of Jesus, dating from 1837. Jesuits were among the earliest explorers and settlers of the South.

“Letters, diaries and daybooks document the growth of Catholic institutions and provide a unique perspective on cultural life in the region,” Estes says of the Jesuit collection, which includes financial records and photographs. “For example, letters from antebellum missionaries to their superiors in France read like travel accounts filled with lengthy descriptions of daily life.”

The center’s archives also house documents of Jesuit Fr. Louis J. Twomey, a well known civil and labor rights activist in the 1950s and ’60s. Also archived are papers of Jesuit Fr. Joseph J. Fichter, author of more than 30 books about church and society. For good measure, included are letters written to Loyola Jesuits by Catholic novelists Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, although “to be honest” the center has few of the latter, Estes says somewhat ruefully.

Estes, an associate professor of English, has taught Southern literature and folklore at Loyola since 1983 and has written two books about Louisiana authors, Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines and A New Collection of Thomas Bangs Thorpe’s Sketches of the Old Southwest: A Critical Edition. As assistant provost for teaching, learning and faculty development, he is responsible for fostering a learner-centered environment and promoting the scholarship of learning and teaching at the university, an apt job description for a man who describes this work as “my passion.”

“The center plans to enlarge the archive through documentary projects focusing on today’s Catholics, so that future generations will have a better understanding of their past,” he says. “Shared traditions are a positive source of identity. Folklore is an important part of history that continues in contemporary life.”

As important as the archives are, Estes says that outreach is a crucial element of the center’s mission.

“Our interest is in public programs, to raise awareness” of Catholicism in the South, he says. “This is a seed waiting to open.”

On Estes’ wish list are regular faculty symposia, extended study of Southern religious women, “quality production” videos concerning immigrants to the South, and exploring the religious histories of Catholic populations. And, he envisions teaching parishes how to archive their own stories, so that faith communities anywhere may leave a full legacy for future generations.

The center is the nation’s only Catholic studies institute focusing on religious life in the South. In time for Christmas last year, it received a Challenge Grant for $500,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The center now seeks private donors to help raise $1.5 million required to match the three-to-one grant.

Deborah Halter lives in New Orleans. She is former editor of Arkansas Catholic, a newsweekly for the Little Rock diocese.

For more information

David Estes, Director, Center for the Study of Catholics in the South

Loyola University Campus
Box 198
6363 St. Charles Ave
New Orleans, LA 70118

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002