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Issue Date:  September 30, 2005

Reinventing the New Orleans church


Things are tight in Baton Rouge, La., where a population surge of hundreds of thousands of New Orleans’ evacuees has made it the state’s largest city. And the offices of the Catholic diocese are no exception. There, the exiled administration of the New Orleans archdiocese is working parallel to -- or on top of -- its twin administration in the buildings of the Baton Rouge diocese.

The Family Life Office of the New Orleans archdiocese is in the Family Life Office of Baton Rouge. The staff of the Office of Catholic Schools for the New Orleans archdiocese is working along side the staff of the Office of Catholic Schools in Baton Rouge. The archdiocesan newspaper, the Clarion Herald, is in production side by side with The Catholic Commentator of Baton Rouge.

From their temporary new home -- nobody is sure exactly how temporary -- the archdiocese is engaged in an effort to reconnect with the nearly half million Catholics from 142 parishes (within eight civil parishes) and to reinvent the way the archdiocese does business, both liturgically and logistically.

New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes has commissioned priests to serve scattered New Orleans parishioners wherever they are in the region. Nearly all of the priests in the archdiocese are accounted for. (One priest is believed to have died when his rectory was destroyed, but his body has not been found.)

The Office of Catholic Schools, headed by Fr. William Maestri, is working to cobble together some semblance of an educational system. The first challenge was finding the students. Maestri sent people to visit shelters throughout Louisiana. And they visited the Astrodome in Houston, where many of their inner-city students were living. Names and contact information were collected.

With staff mostly accounted for -- a Herculean task given the fragility of cell phone networks damaged by the storm and overburdened in its aftermath -- Maestri’s office set up satellite schools and arranged for online courses. In many places, local Catholic schools welcomed displaced students.

Back in New Orleans, Catholic schools in neighborhoods less devastated by the flooding have already reopened or will be reopening soon. Where there was damage, parents volunteered for clean up and repair. The archdiocese has not been allowed into the devastated civil parishes of Orleans and St. Bernard to assess the damage there.

Chancellor Fr. Gerard Seiler said 60 of the archdiocese’s 140 parishes are now operating.

The archbishop is working long days like the rest. Enduring a never-ending string of meetings, the soft-spoken Hughes has had little time to monitor the national discussion about Katrina and its aftermath, though he has picked up the bullet points. And he makes no effort to enter that discussion.

In an interview with NCR, addressing the issues of race and class made manifest by Katrina, the archbishop was cautious and imprecise -- likely a result of his self-professed distaste for the “blame game” of politicians and pundits.

On race, he said that prior to the hurricane he had prepared a pastoral letter on racial harmony intended for release this month. “That will have to be postponed and updated in light of what has happened,” he said.

On the federal and local response to the disaster, Hughes said only that cooperation between church and state is essential in the weeks, months and years ahead. Asked to assess that relationship so far: “It’s been basically constructive.”

On social tensions in the city following the tragically uneven pre- and post-Katrina evacuation, Hughes spoke of a task force he has joined at the invitation of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. On the work ahead for the task force, Hughes said only that the essential rebuilding to be done is as much about community as it is about construction.

No boundaries

Others in the archdiocese have been more direct and elaborate. According to a Catholic News Service report, Edmundite Fr. Michael Jacques -- pastor of St. Peter Claver Church in a New Orleans neighborhood completely flooded when several levees broke-- was in Washington to propose, with other Catholic and Protestant clergy, a long-term relief plan that builds on the community organizational structure that parishes and congregations already had in place in poor and working-class neighborhoods. The priest is one of the founding members of All Congregations Together, known as ACT, a coalition of 30 Catholic and Protestant congregations founded in 1989 to improve conditions in their neighborhoods.

At a news conference and in an interview with CNS, Jacques outlined the role of churches in rebuilding New Orleans. This involves speaking up for their parishioners, restoring church infrastructures that were functioning before the hurricane and working on long-term programs for an improved city, he said.

“What will happen after FEMA, the Red Cross and Catholic Charities leave?” he said. “That’s when community organizing takes over.”

But first there is a need to rebuild hope so that displaced residents are willing to return to New Orleans, he said.

A major part of the congregations’ program involves providing jobs for displaced residents in the city’s reconstruction, first in the clean-up operations and then in construction. The program includes training people to be skilled workers, such as electricians and carpenters, needed in construction work.

“I think many people will return once they see hope,” he told CNS.

“But we have to make sure that our people -- people of color -- have a place” in the decision-making process, said Jacques, who is white.

Jacques’ parish has 2,600 families with 89 percent of the parishioners below the poverty line.

Jacques said he is trying to establish contact with his parishioners, many of whom escaped to Texas and to other parts of Louisiana.

“One Sunday we had 1,800 people at Mass. The next Sunday there were none,” said Jacques, describing the “living nightmare” of his African-American parishioners during the storm and in its aftermath.

“We were a community that was functioning. Now we are a church without boundaries,” he said.

On the issue of whether people should return to live in the neighborhoods that are below sea level and subject to future flooding, he said that the decision should be left to the people.

“We know the city didn’t put a proper infrastructure in place,” he said, referring to the levee system that was supposed to protect the lowlands.

It was a political decision not to improve the levee system and a political decision can be made to provide the infrastructure to protect people, he said.


When Fr. Maestri talks infrastructure, he is talking schools first. He sees the return of Catholic schools as an essential early step toward his city’s renewal. “Once you have parishes and schools operating,” he said, “you then have the businesses. And when you have the businesses then you have fuel and all of those things that are part of an infrastructure of a society and a community. The civil authorities recognize that and have been working very closely with us in making this happen.”

Like Jacques, Maestri wants to see an inclusive process. “The local is very important,” Maestri told NCR. “The Catholic principle of subsidiarity -- of reverence for the local community -- is going to be very important in reconstruction and renewal.”

Maestri said meetings are planned with inner-city principals, pastors and “those that will be around long term” to strategize for that renewal. A central question, Maestri said, is how can the Catholic church be in a leadership position. “Above all, we can be inclusive, especially in having those who have been most severely displaced and hurt -- that their needs are not forgotten and that they take part in the reconstruction.”

“The churches are not just communities,” he added, “they’re moral voices.”

For Maestri, this is not just an opportunity for the renewal of a city, but for the Catholic church itself.

“During the last five years,” he said, “Catholics have experienced the greatest scandal in the history of the Catholic church in American. Three weeks ago we experienced here the greatest natural disaster ever to hit the United States. I believe that we now have the opportunity to be at the forefront of the greatest recovery and the greatest renewal of a diocese. We can be a model for the country. God has given us this grace opportunity. If we have the courage and the vision and a true desire for justice, then I think that we will experience a true resurrection.”

Jeff Severens Guntzel is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

Archdiocese seeks parish twinnng

The New Orleans archdiocese has started a twinning program for parishes affected by Katrina. It is looking for parishes outside the affected area to link up to a sister parish in New Orleans.

Interested parishes or individuals should send an e-mail with details of how they can help and any questions to (Indicate your interest in providing hurricane relief in the subject line.)

-- Joe Feuerherd

National Catholic Reporter, September 30, 2005

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