St. Jude, a couple feet tall, looks out kindly over stacks of pink and white petitions. His neck is decorated with garlands. Bouquets of flowers surround him on the altar of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, offerings of sacrifice and thanksgiving. Pocket change and keys and scraps of notebook paper lie under his feet.
The stacks of petitions are also a couple feet tall; they request spiritual help “to stop drinking,” “for success in studies” and “for a happy home.” Fortunately, I don’t need help to stop drinking, nor do I need success in studies or for my troubled home to be healed. I could probably stand to be a nicer person, more patient, less crabby. I am hardly a hopeless case, and St. Jude specializes in hopeless cases. Yet here I am, standing in front of his statue. The church is packed, standing room only. Are all these people hopeless?, I wonder. Do I dare suggest that my lame petitions are on a level with those of people who need to find jobs and be cured of diseases?
The purpose of my visit isn’t random. Four times a year, Our Lady of Guadalupe, home to the International Shrine of St. Jude, holds a novena prayer service in honor of St. Jude. The novena consists of nine consecutive days of Masses, sermons and a series of prayers (five times daily) for St. Jude’s intercession. The time investment is about 60 to 75 minutes a day, which sounds easy but isn’t. I do not know how many miracles have resulted from this novena – no one does, not even the Rev. Michael Amesse, OMI, who as pastor of this church oversees the novena – but it must fulfill a need in New Orleans. This month, the novena celebrates its 70th anniversary.
Thank you St. Jude for answering my prayers. I have been delivered from anguish I’ve suffered for five years. Neither doctors, drugs or therapists were able to help me but St. Jude heard me and I’ve been happy and clear-headed for over a month. –D.
The mystery of St. Jude
Little is known about St. Jude, sometimes called St. Jude Thaddeus. He was a cousin of and an apostle to Jesus Christ. He traveled to Persia to preach. He is said to have cured a Mesopotamian king and to have converted an entire royal court to Catholicism. He died when he encountered a mob who bludgeoned him. This is why statues and drawings of the saint depict him with a club.
Jude has a letter in the New Testament, but some Biblical scholars believe it may have been written by another Jude or that the author may have used a pseudonym. Jude’s feast day is Oct. 28; novenas and devotions to the saint became wildly popular in the 19th century. Even with all these reminders, Jude is still referred to as the “forgotten apostle” because many Christians refused to repeat his name, which is similar to that of Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ betrayer.
Rev. Amesse, a native of Montreal, came to Our Lady of Guadalupe about four years ago. He says of the church, “It’s a magnet for people with very serious problems. People go to St. Jude when they have situations that are just impossible for them to handle. This is where they come.” (St. Mary Magdalen Church in Metairie also holds a St. Jude novena in June and October, with two services a day.)
The Oblates of Mary Immaculate have a mission to serve those least touched by the church. The parish at North Rampart and Conti streets has 500 registered families, mostly black, mostly poor. It has a youth group, CCD classes, a seniors group and a community center. The church buildings are in good condition, and the congregation has a deeply entrenched spirituality. Everyone joins hands to sing the Lord’s Prayer, across the pews and across the aisle, and often my hands are lifted so high I feel I’ve just been declared featherweight champion. Parishioners greet visitors warmly and remember them on return visits. Sermons are loudly applauded, as are solos.
Amesse cites the “warmth of the people who come here, with their desperate needs. It’s always positive.”
“St. Jude was introduced to me because I was lousy at mathematics,” Amesse continues. As a youngster, he had trouble in algebra until his mother recommended he pray to the saint. He passed – but later left math far behind in favor of the sick and despairing of this parish.
Guadalupe attracts Catholics and Protestants and people of miscellaneous or no religion. During the novena, the racial composition is more mixed: “We have a gumbo of people that come here,” Amesse says. But everyone is the same in that they’re suffering in some way.
“They’re praying for a miracle (... but) I think most people come to learn how to live with their maladies. It gives them a lot of hope,” he says. In other words, St. Jude might help deliver a miracle, but it may not be the one they’re looking for.
Amesse recruits guest speakers – mostly priests, but sometimes nuns and deacons – to deliver the sermons. The quarterly novena schedule is booked through 2008. One of the novena all-stars is Rev. Tony Ricard, pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea and St. Philip the Apostle churches in New Orleans. A New Orleans native and a former public school teacher, Ricard is known for his wide grin, ponytail and jokes. His sermons elicit a lot of crowd response, with themes such as “Who invited the devil?” He preaches his next novena in October.
“I consider the novena home,” says Ricard, whose late grandmother was one of its faithful. “It’s probably the most fulfilling preaching experience that I’ve ever had … We’re gonna laugh, and you might cry, but each day you’re going to walk away with something to reflect on.”
The novena speaker delivers five sermons a day, beginning at 6:30 a.m., says a couple of Masses and talks with churchgoers. Those speakers who come from out of town, such as Rev. James Erving, OMI, stay at the Guadalupe rectory. Erving is parochial vicar at Holy Angels Church in Buffalo, N.Y. He preached his first New Orleans novena in October.
“St. Jude is the patron of the hopeless. And the hopeless really don’t think that God cares about them. If you’re hopeless, that’s the perfect opportunity for the Lord to say how much he loves you. That’s really the message of St. Jude the Apostle,” Erving says.
Patricia Munch, who lives in eastern New Orleans, attends the novena four times a year for various reasons and has gone consistently since 1993. “We do go for petitions and for some thanksgivings – but mostly we’re asking,” says Munch, 74. “It is quite a sacrifice. That’s the hardest thing I do … But I think you just get in the habit of doing it, and you just do it.”
Abandoned, then resurrected
The building that houses this small but friendly parish has withstood some of the most difficult times in New Orleans’ history. It was built in 1827 as a mortuary chapel (that is, for funeral services only. Its location near St. Louis cemeteries Nos. 1 and 2 is intentional) for yellow fever victims; later it served Confederate veterans, and then the Italian community as St. Anthony. The proximity of Storyville brought in some non-traditional worshippers. The building was abandoned several times, but in 1918, the OMI priests arrived in New Orleans to staff churches including St. Louis Cathedral and the mortuary chapel. The chapel was renamed Our Lady of Guadalupe because the priests expected to serve large numbers of Mexican immigrants.
With permission from the Vatican, the OMI priests began the local St. Jude Novena in 1935 after a group of congregants said the saint had answered their prayers. A new shrine was built in 1976, but the church had been renovated and refurbished over the years, with some funds and decorations provided by grateful petitioners.
“People always comment on the beautiful stained glass windows,” says guide Josette Frederick, who sometimes leads groups through the church during cemetery tours. “All of the windows except two have a Blessed Mother theme,” in honor of the OMI priests and the church’s namesake.
Today we received word that our son has received a full scholarship at the college he applied to. My husband and I have spent many sleepless nights wondering how we were going to pay for our twins to go to college. I have prayed continuously to St. Jude about our financial situation and his answer has lifted a big burden (from) our lives. –B.
St. Jude may have lived thousands of years ago, but today people reach him via Web site, e-mail and a pre-recorded daily telephone message. The International Shrine of St. Jude advertises on buses and taxis, and its gift shop is open almost year-round.
But it’s the small remembrances that make the novena meaningful to people. Aaron Neville attends and occasionally plays piano and sings a couple of hymns. The Friday healing service, when priests administer the sacrament of the sick, attracts long lines of people praying to be cured of illnesses. The shrine possesses a relic, a bone fragment from St. Jude encased in glass. Churchgoers kiss this relic, which strikes some non-Catholics as odd.
Today the congregation is singing “How Great Thou Art” – they stick to the oldies here – but it doesn’t drown out the siren that’s coming down Rampart Street. Is that the sound of another hopeless case? I think of all the people in this parish and elsewhere who have a problem but have no idea how to solve it. What brings them here? Even the word “miracle,” so commonly used in conversation, seems like an exaggeration or a myth.
“I think they do get a miracle all the time,” Amesse says. “Otherwise they wouldn’t come back.” •
The St. Jude Winter Solemn Novena is scheduled for Jan. 22-30. Information, 525-1551 or www.saintjudeshrine.com.