Farewell to St. Henry’s

Ed. Note: In April, Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes announced the closing of 25 Catholic Church parishes throughout the archdiocese of New Orleans. In his book, Historic Churches of Old New Orleans, written prior to Hurricane Katrina, author George Gurtner outlined the historic significance of many of those churches now slated for closing. A native New Orleanian and a product of St. Henry’s Church and school, one of the parishes slated for closing, Gurtner tells us what the school and church meant to him.

“Things do not change, we change.”
                                          Henry David Thoreau

They all gathered on the steps of St. Henry’s Church in a blue collar Uptown neighborhood one recent sunny afternoon in early spring; an odd and eclectic bunch to be sure: old ladies with weathered faces decked out in pastel dresses stood shoulder to shoulder with nouveau Uptowners – 30-something women talking about “playing tennis tomorrow” as they toted their kids, named Macy and Jonathan, around in three-wheeled baby carriages.

They had all gathered to try to save their venerable old church and parish after they learned St. Henry’s was one of many marked for closing by Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes.

One elderly woman pushed a petition that “is going to the  pope.” For good measure she added with a wink, “He’s German, ya know … just like this church.”

German pope or not, St. Henry’s Parish, along with nearby Our Lady of Good Counsel Church and other selected inner city Catholic Churches were already on the block to be closed. As expected, the order to close quickly fell on 25 of those parishes.

The reasons for the closings spun from a perfect storm of calamities such as $120 million in uninsured damage in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, and Catholic evacuees from Katrina who never returned to the city. Then there’s the universal problem of shortage of priests. The Archdiocese of New Orleans is expecting to lose about 15 priests through attrition in the next five years.

As I stood among the crowd outside the church that afternoon, I couldn’t help but reflect on one quaint bit of incongruity that time had only piqued: Having been thrown out of St. Henry’s School as a kid (two years in the sixth grade) for “reasons of deportment” as it was then explained, then venturing to Our Lady of Good Counsel only to last about six months there (something about putting a stray cat in a nun’s handbag, as I recall), standing on this corner rallying for the survival of these doomed institutions, was almost like being paroled from San Quentin and Folsom Prison then carrying a placard protesting California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s closing of the two prisons for budgetary reasons.

But then I realized, I was adding my voice to the protesters for reasons much deeper than some Catholic homeboy pride. I was doing it because I realized all I really needed to know I learned from experience right here at St. Henry’s Church – and the two adjacent schools that comprised the parish.

For instance: The greatest attitude changer in the world is a wicked left hook thrown by Sister Teresita, a full knuckle job that caught me flush on the right side of the head and left me groggy for hours one afternoon.

Even if I didn’t put the snake under the curtain at that 1950s-something minstrel show, causing two women in the cast to faint, and I knew who did, I didn’t rat them out. No matter how long the nuns and Officer Gambino from the Second District held me in that empty classroom accusing me of that dastardly act. Omerta!

It has been nearly a half century, still I cannot forgive Bobby Domingo for announcing to everybody in the lunch room one Friday that I was eating a bologna sandwich (a mortal sin back then, remember!) causing a covey of nuns to whisk me outside to a bench alongside the convent whilst one of their housekeepers made for me a tuna sandwich that tasted like Elmer’s Glue. To this day, a tuna-sandwich-post-traumatic-stress-syndrome haunts me, fills my mouth with the taste of mucilage and makes my eyes twitch whenever I hear the words, “Chicken of the Sea.” My therapist tells me that forgiving Bobby Domingo could be a step in the right direction.

I wasn’t the source of the rumor about Sister Albertine: that she “musta trained for her nunship at Gestapo headquarters.” Even though, all these years later, it’s still a toss-up for the best (or worst) disciplinary tool: Sister Teresita’s left hook or Sister Albertine’s gripping my shoulder blade between two fingers and bringing me screaming to my knees. This has remained one of the great arguments whenever collegial denizens of St. Henry’s gather.

I learned that the best jelly doughnuts in the world came from Schwab’s Bakery on Magazine Street – John Kennedy Toole referred to this bakery as “The Germans.” It was the place where Toole’s famous character, Ignatius Reilly the protagonist of his 1981 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Confederacy of Dunces, bought doughnuts, sucked the jelly out of them, then threw the empties back into the bag.

I came to appreciate for all time people like Father William McCallion, the first non-German anything to be allowed into the parish. When “Father Mack” realized his favorite four miscreants were missing mass, he searched until he found us one frozen morning huddled in the doorway of a jewelry store across from Schwab’s Bakery – white powdery sugar covering the front of us. Father Mack walked up and said simply, “Idiots! You know it’s a helluva lot warmer in church than it is out here!” As he walked off, the four of us realized the wisdom in his words. I don’t think we missed Mass after that day. Father Mack built a gym at St. Henry’s but few people came. Finally, the little-used gym was torn down. After leaving St. Henry’s, Father Mack spent many years as chaplain at Angola State Penitentiary before transferring to St. Gertrude in Des Allemands where he died peacefully in his sleep one night. The four of us from the door of that jewelry store across the street from Schwabs on all those frozen mornings before we were caught wept when we heard of Father Mack’s death. I have come to realize that people like Father Mack seem to be in the shortest supply when they’re needed most.

Depending on who gave me a detention on Friday (or any afternoon for that matter), sitting on a bench behind the wall alongside the church was always too tempting. If it was Friday evening and Sister Clare gave me the big “D,” I simply waited until she was out of sight then jumped the fence and went home. Sister Clare had no memory at all. If she happened to bring it up Monday morning, I simply responded with, “What detention?” and the whole incident was history. I learned a lot about chutzpa from those detentions.

The German blue collar fathers of us in the neighborhood (my own father included), always made sure to end their “Nine Churches” walk on Good Friday – a tradition that sadly has long since gone the way of 78 rpm records – at St. Henry. This wasn’t done so much out of loyalty to St. Henry’s as to the fact that the church was in close proximity to their favorite watering holes along Magazine Street.

I came to appreciate the value of “thinking on one’s feet” the morning of our first communion, when a pretty young girl named Rosemary, all veiled, fluffy and lacy in white, slowly proceeded up the aisle toward the communion railing … and too close to the candles. Concentrating on the rosary dangling between the fingers of her folded hands, she hardly noticed when her veil brushed against the flame and what was a certain tragic immolation on this ceremonial day was averted with considerable, but not lethal damage, when the nuns quickly slapped the flames and doused them with holy water from a nearby font. In short order, Rosemary regained her composure and continued her march up the aisle to receive her first communion.

As the petition signing and speeches from the back of a truck wound down on that afternoon, I walked a few yards down General Pershing Street (formerly “Berlin Street” and changed by the French to antagonize the Germans), to the spot where I had won the Duncan Yo-Yo City Championship in 1957. I remembered admiring the little Filipino guys who traveled with Duncan and who for a quarter would carve exotic sunset scenes, replete with palm trees, on the backs of our yo-yos. I remembered that right then and there I had determined that this is what I wanted to do with my life – I would follow the Duncan caravan and carve yo-yos. I remembered Buster Manson trying to jump the curb on his Simplex Motor Scooter and winding up half way down the block on his back. I remembered Vonderhaar’s Grocery on the corner of General Pershing and Magazine streets where we bought our NFL playing cards and I remembered the schoolyard where we tossed those same cards against the church wall in recess games of tops … I remembered …
I realized in an instant that all of this protesting and petitioning wasn’t merely about fealty to a brick building or to something called a parish or a school – or even to memories of things past. Nor was it because in this place we “came of age.” In truth, St. Henry’s – like the other Catholic churches, schools and parishes around New Orleans that eventually became a victim of circumstance and changing times – was, in fact, our home. The priests and nuns were our family. We didn’t have to travel far to confess our sins, to seek advice and solace or to find friends with whom to laugh.

St. Henry’s was that place: all things needed by a simple people with few illusions about the world outside their familiar little enclaves; people living their lives one day at a time; and they, and I, were already there.

It is ironic that St. Henry’s parish has been melded back into St. Stephen’s parish on three blocks away on Napoleon Avenue. St. Stephen’s is the church from which St. Henry’s evolved in 1856, and opened proudly as “St. Heinrich Kirche,” the German church on Berlin Street.

Irony aside, earning our Catholic spurs at St. Henry’s was fun – and much more – while it lasted. It was life itself, the meat and potatoes of growing up and old, birth to death, in the same neighborhood simply because those who stayed found nothing better to replace it. It was all laid bare in the greatest irony of all: German priests, coming to English-speaking America to “say Mass” in Latin, a language as foreign to the blue collar masses in the pews as Mandarin Chinese. But nobody cared because this was St. Henry’s. This was home.

Perhaps, Gary Wills, the brilliant author best summed up St. Henry’s Church (and thousands of St. Henry’s churches all across America during their halcyon days of the 1950s and pre-Vatican II early ’60s) in his book, Bare Ruined Choirs: Doubt, Prophecy, and Radical Religion, “All these things were shared, part of community life, not a rare isolated joy, like reading poems. These moments belonged to a people, not to oneself. It was a ghetto, undeniably. But not a bad ghetto to grow up in.”

Categories: Local Color

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