Last Saturday night a week ago (July 11) there was a block party on the 800 block of Gen. Pershing St. This was the annual St. Henry parish reunion. From the outward appearance the occasion was joyous. Jay Monque D’s Blues band performed. There was free food. Drinks were flowing. Old friends were seeing and hugging each other. The people who grew up in St. Henry parish are among the most spirited parishioners in all of Catholicism.
For all the joy, however, there was something pathetic about the event. In past years the reunion was held on the church grounds and in the cafeteria. This year the parishioners were locked out of the very church that many of their families helped build. Denied their parish by their bishop, they maintained the tradition on the street in front of the church.
For months these parishioners had been hoping for a new bishop – one who would see the severity of the mistake made by Archbishop Alfred Hughes. On the day that Gregory Aymond was announced as that successor, however, he offered little hope, saying in effect that while he was willing to listen, he would not be too concerned with changing the past. Only sage old archbishop Philip Hannan (now three bishops removed from his tenure) had the wisdom to see the church’s mistake saying, in effect, that he did not see a problem with allowing retired priests to say masses there – which is what the denied parishioners are looking for.
In many ways Alfred Hughes seems to be a good man. True, he was criticized for allegedly looking the other way during a pedophile scandal when he was an archdiocese official in Boston. On the other hand, those who know him say that he did many charitable works here, without publicity, including prison ministries and aiding immigrants. He also had the thankless task to carrying the church through the Hurricane Katrina recovery. But on the matter of church closings, he got bad advice from an auxiliary bishop and a local pastor.
There have been many churches closing throughout the nation due to population shifts, but St. Henry, and nearby Our Lady of Good Consul parishes still had their population and active parishioners willing to provide for their churches. As New Orleans recovers it needs – more than any city in the nation – to maintain the institutions that were part of neighborhoods. Some residents had deep-rooted family links to the old churches. The bishop and his advisers just did not get it.
Later that night at Deutsches Haus Irish crooner Danny O’Flaherty performed. At one point he talked about the loss of churches in his native Ireland as a preamble to his singing a ballad he had written about St. Henry church. The audience cheered.
We suspect that the mantra in the Archbishop’s office is "this too shall pass." I pray that the new bishop does not assume the same attitude because after what I saw the evening of July 10 – it won’t.
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