There was a visiting priest at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic church on Canal Street one Sunday in 2002. He was a man on rank within the church, the Provincial of the Holy Cross order, whose priests ran the church. Standing at the lectern his message was solemn. No mind in the congregation wandered as the priest spoke: Father Richard Nowery, the church’s pastor had been removed.
Nowery seemed like a nice man; slight in build with a grandfatherly presence. He had served as pastor at Sacred Heart since 1995 and was well liked. The parish’s most famous son was Louis Armstrong who had been baptized there. According to Nola.com, In 2000 Nowery had even organized a musical tribute to Satchmo. Now, on this Sunday, if Armstrong had been there he might have played a funeral dirge.
To a shocked flock the provincial explained that Nowery had been taken out of his ministry and reassigned to the province’s headquarters where his work would be more clerical and away from children. The provincial was not specific about Nowery’s offense, but he assured that it had happened many years earlier and not in New Orleans.
Later we would learn, according to Nola.com, that Nowery had been accused of sexually abusing two boys in Austin, Texas during the mid '80s. He received medical treatment under orders from the Austin diocese and was deemed fit for the ministry. However, by 2002 the church was hardening on the issue and the New Orleans office insisted that Nowery, whose name would be among the 57 included on the archdiocese sex abuse list released last week, should be removed from Sacred Heart.
So, it was that the provincial had to deliver the news to a congregation that their pastor was gone. I happened to be there that day and I recall a man in the pews shouting at the provincial. I do not recall if he was protesting the removal decision, or angry at Nowery, or releasing the frustration of the situation. There was anguish in his voice. Other parishioners were crying. That moment showed me the hurt from the scandals not just from victims but from parishioners who want the church to stabilize their lives rather than to cause upheaval.
Forgiveness is harder to achieve among the unforgivable. But, the people of Sacred Heart persisted. More than 300 parishioners signed a petition asking the archdiocese to reinstate the pastor. The request was denied. That was just as well because there would be another ill wind. The parish’s population was declining. After Katrina the church never reopened.
Ricard Nowery died in April of this year at age 80. May he, and those whose lives he impacted, have found some redemption.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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