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Issue Date:  February 11, 2005

Ways to serve at every turn

He left the Josephites, married, worked for HUD, found grace everyplace


In the 1960s American Catholics witnessed two great seismic shifts that challenged old ways and opened up unimagined new vistas: the civil rights movement and the Second Vatican Council. Everyone who was an adult during those times has memories of at least one of those revolutions, but few are better qualified to talk about the combined effect of those tectonic movements than Thomas Honoré, a man who began his life in a static culture that had changed little since the 18th century and emerged 40 years later in a world and a church he could not have imagined.

He is a solidly built man with a short, neatly trimmed beard, a booming laugh, a telltale southern Louisiana accent and a touch of the poet. He is retired today, as are many who were greatly affected by those times.

Since Honoré left his position as director of the Los Angeles office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he headed a staff of more than 200, his energy level has only increased. He and Jan, his wife of 31 years, are invested in a variety of volunteer projects, including the Los Angeles Catholic Worker house, which feeds some 3,000 homeless people a week. Their only child Marcel began graduate studies in journalism this fall. “I feel as though I’ve been guided all through my life,” said Honoré, “and I’m grateful for that -- as if there was grace at each step.” Grace at Every Turn is in fact the name of his autobiographical memoir, which was published last spring.

He was born in 1936 into a society that he says was “doubly invisible” -- the racially mixed, French- and English-speaking Creoles. Descendents of “the free people of color,” to the white population they were racially inferior mulattos; to the blacks they were strange “Frenchmen.” They lived apart in extended families with their own memories, rules, recipes, music and a strong adherence to the Catholic church.

Tom was the youngest of six children in the family home on the outskirts of Baton Rouge. “There was no sewage system,” he said, “no streetlights, no paved streets, no sidewalks, no mail delivery.” He is not bitter, only bemused that people simply accepted the status quo as if it were divinely ordered, generation after generation.

He entered Newburgh Minor Seminary of the Josephite Fathers, an order founded in the early 1900s expressly to minister to the “colored” people of the United States. He would later learn that the early effort had gone badly. The first three black Josephite priests were rejected by bishops and shunned by clergy and laity. The first superior general, Fr. John Slattery, devastated by the response, eventually left the order and the Catholic church as well. His successors decided the time was not suitable for an integrated priesthood, and so the Josephites from 1918 to 1941 refused all nonwhite candidates. By the time Honoré entered the seminary in New York, they were admitting blacks again, but the all-white seminary staff had scant experience with minority students.

The transition from southern Louisiana to the seminary 80 miles north of New York City proved a shock to young Honoré. “I was now in the world of white Anglo-Saxons,” he wrote in his memoir. “The place was predominantly Irish in culture -- a people whose Catholicism was wrapped in the contradictory patterns of mechanical strictures and loose living … between Jansenistic stoicism and ribald bohemianism. The Irish seemed to carry a stiff upper lip in efforts to fight off their eyes’ natural twinkle, always on the verge of showing. What we got was too much of Jansen and too little of Joyce.”

An event that especially molded young Honoré was the death of a black seminarian who succumbed to nephritis after a short illness. His mother, too poor to bring his body home to Alabama, agreed to have him buried on the seminary grounds. She, alone of her family, attended the funeral service. “Afterward she was given a place in the dining hall with the students,” said Honoré, “instead of at the priests’ table where any white visitor would have been seated.” To this day the memory brings tears to his eyes. “A question was planted,” he said. “Could I ever be a brother to men who live by a double standard?”

He moved on to the major seminary in Washington in 1959, when the civil rights movement and school desegregation were the talk of the nation. Honoré says he was beginning to see sin as so much more than sex outside of marriage. “I saw it in the larger context of refusing to love my neighbor in peace, in justice, in nonviolence.” To the extent possible, he joined civil rights projects and demonstrations.

He was one of five African-American Josephites ordained to the priesthood in March 1965. Archbishop John Cody performed the ceremony in the historic St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans before a vast crowd. Afterward, Cody knelt before each of the new priests to receive their blessing, reminding them as he did so, “This is the first and last time you will ever see me kneel before you.”

Honoré’s first assignment was teaching French and social studies at the same Newburgh seminary that had so troubled him. He invited in speakers on the hot topics, yet, he said, few of his peers shared his enthusiasm. “They were good men for the most part,” he said. “They did not see themselves as part of the black community, and they did not feel the hurts, dreams and passions of African-Americans.”

During his three years in Newburgh, Honoré was one of the organizers of more than 50 black priests who banded together to form the National Black Clergy Caucus. Their first formal statement in April 1968 made headlines with its opening words: “The Catholic church in the United States is primarily a white racist institution, has addressed itself primarily to white society, and is definitely a part of that society.”

Honoré asked for and was granted permission to seek a degree in urban studies at Loyola University in Chicago. He was assigned residence at Presentation Parish, pastored by the legendary Msgr. Jack Egan. Honoré’s year there in one of the most poverty-stricken communities in the country proved decisive for his career. Egan and his three associates showed him what a few dedicated clergy could achieve. The parish was ablaze with energy and activity -- church-organized battles against banks’ redlining practices, campaigns to keep poor homeowners from losing their property, and cooperative projects with organizations like the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket.

At the same time, Honoré realized how overwhelming was the work to be done in the black community, and he felt he would never find the encouragement he needed if he continued with the Josephites. He left the order and conceived the notion of serving as a worker priest, but Cody, by then Chicago’s cardinal, would not tolerate the idea.

Honoré resigned from the priesthood, moved to an apartment and got a job with the Chicago area office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “I had to leave my clerical trappings and take a place among the pilgrims of the world who wrestle with doubts and worries,” he recalled.

Soon he met a like-minded young woman named Jan Geiger, a former Dominican nun recently returned from two years in Libya teaching the children of U.S. Air Force officers. They were immediately drawn to each other, both Southern Catholics -- though he was from humble, Creole roots, and she from white, privileged New Orleans society -- running from their old lives, both unsure about the next step.

Honoré said he was stunned by how ill-equipped he was to relate to a woman; he had repressed the sexual and emotional side of his nature for so long. A relationship with Honoré had its own set of problems for Geiger. For the daughter of white Southern gentry, marriage to a black man was inconceivable. “When I went home to talk to my parents about my plans,” she said, “they told me if I married him I would no longer be welcome in their home and we could have no contact. I didn’t think they really meant that.” But they did.

Tom and Jan were married in Chicago in 1971, surrounded by friends and relatives from both families, though not her parents. The couple moved to Los Angeles where Tom had been transferred, and he climbed up the Housing and Urban Development ladder, ultimately becoming head of the Los Angeles operation. For most of his 30 years there he was director of the fair housing office. Jan, meanwhile, taught in public schools, specializing in children with severe behavioral problems.

The two hoped for a child of their own and had almost given up when Jan became pregnant in 1976. Marcel’s birth proved even more of a blessing when Tom wrote to Jan’s parents about the news. “I told him it was a waste of time,” said Jan. However, her parents responded in a note, saying they happened to be coming Los Angeles and would be willing to meet parents and baby at the airport. The reconciliation that followed, though restrained, brought a sense of completion to Tom and Jan.

Today Jan still teaches, and Tom has many projects, like his coordination of the Southern California Call to Action conference last year. Both give marriage preparation talks at their local parish where, Jan said, “I tell the couples that Tom rescued me. He is so sensitive, so concerned about injustice and oppression in society. I tell them that I see the trees; he sees the forest. I can’t imagine how I would have turned out without him.”

Tom Honoré sees racism as a stubborn disease still infecting blacks and whites alike. “It’s still not resolved,” he said. “We’re still not reconciled; the wonderful civil rights laws are still not enforced.” Yet, he has hope, and he’s grateful for what he has been able to achieve. “Thanks to Jan -- and God -- I’ve had a life that is more fulfilling and more interesting than I deserve.”

Robert McClory, a longtime contributor to NCR, writes from Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005

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