In the opening paragraphs of his 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Confederacy of Dunces, which was set in New Orleans, author John Kennedy Toole writes of a bakery he calls “the Germans.” On many mornings, Ignatius Reilly, Toole’s hilarious protagonist, made a run to the Germans for jelly doughnuts for his equally off the wall mother. On the way home, Ignatius would suck the jelly out of the donuts and throw the “empties” back into the bag.
“The Germans” in actuality was Schwab’s Bakery, a small family business set along busy Magazine Street in a working-class Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans.
Around the corner, from Schwab’s was the distinctly German St. Henry’s Church and School, on erstwhile “Berlin Street,” renamed “Gen. Pershing Street” after World War I.
As less-than-stellar students at St. Henry’s, four of us perfected a “path of escape” from Mass each morning: a sidestep here and there, then a mad dash through a maze of alleys that led to Magazine Street, where we crossed over to Schwab’s to buy powdered jelly donuts and cartons of chocolate milk. We stood freezing in doorways along Magazine Street, chompin’ donuts, drinking milk and yakkin’ before dusting the confectionery sugar from the fronts of our shirts and sneaking back into the line coming from church.
Nobody was the wiser.
On one of those numbingly cold mornings as we stood, stomping our feet to stay warm – with our mouths filled with doughnuts, jelly and chocolate milk and the fronts of our shirts covered with white powdery doughnut sugar – a look of terror crossed the face of one member of our Mass-skipping gang.
We all turned to see Father William McCallion, a young priest from Brooklyn who was in his first year at St. Henry’s and the first non-German anything to cross the threshold of St. Henry’s church or school. Father “Mac’s” cassock was blowing every which way in the hard wind as he rubbed his hands together and strode up to us.
“You know, it’s a helluva lot warmer in church than it is out here!” Father Mac said to the four of us as a group, but seemingly to each of us personally.
With that, the young priest simply turned and walked off. He never threatened us or berated us, and he never showed even a hint of anger.
The logic of Father Mac’s statement accomplished more than any harsh words or yelling could ever have accomplished. None of us ever missed daily weekday Mass again. And after Mass, when Father Mac strode into our classroom for a surprise visit as he sometimes did, he spoke often of the importance of faith in our lives and how when we have faith, all things are indeed possible, no matter what we say … or don’t say … or even do! The “faith” Father Mac spoke of didn’t have any religious connection; he never tied it in to our Catholicism. It was one of those “ya gotta believe” football coach rah-rah type of things. In time we all connected this “faith lesson” to that cold day on Magazine Street and what Father Mac did, or didn’t say to us that morning or during his classroom visits or on the playground. If Father Mac said it, we believed it. We had faith.
Years later, when I was a young newspaper reporter, I ran into Father Mac who was then the chaplain at the hellish Angola State Penitentiary in the rattlesnake infested Tunica Hills. We had lunch together several times over the course of several visits I made to the prison, and we spoke of that cold morning so many years earlier and of his calm demeanor and piercing logic and how it all had affected each of us – to that very day.
We told many other “St. Henry stories” like the one about Father Mac driving home a new car – a fire engine red job – and Father Himmrich, our old German pastor, hitting the ceiling and admonishing Father Mac: “Priests must not drive flashy red cars. You need to drive something the Blessed Mother would be happy to ride in.” That same day, Father Mac exchanged the red job for a sedate powder blue Plymouth Belvedere. He drove it to the front of the rectory, blew the horn and yelled to Father Himmrich, “If the Blessed Mother’s in there, ask her to come out! I know she’d love to take a ride in my new car!”
In addition to being a faith-filled man, Father Mac had a marvelous sense of humor and laughed easily at himself and at life’s foibles.
In 2008, New Orleans Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes closed several churches in the city – St. Henry’s was one of them ostensibly for economic reasons; the “remnants of Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” we were told.
Some of us with St. Henry’s connections formed an organization – “Save St. Henry’s” – replete with T-shirts and posters. The Save St. Henry’s brain trust, knowing that no church can ever be closed when two or more people are inside worshipping, laid out a schedule insuring that two or more “worshippers” would indeed remain inside the church 24/7.
My son, Hans Wilhelm Gürtner, and I chose 10 p.m. Friday to 6 a.m. Saturday for our prayer/sleep vigil. During those interminably long nights we yawned bleary eyed and tossed and turned on our air mattresses set on the main aisle. The pews in the old church creaked eerily in response to the cold wind whistling in the lonely night outside. During those times, I relayed many anecdotes of my decidedly misguided youthful years at St. Henry’s Church and School to my son. Hans and I laughed often during those times together (without fear of my being smacked from behind as Sister Gabriel had done many times in those same pews) as we fought a determined, faith-filled battle to save something that was more than just bricks and mortar to me – and to so many others.
At one point, Hans offhandedly mentioned how cold it must be outside and without hesitation, I thought or maybe even said aloud, “You know, it’s a helluva lot warmer inside this church than it is out there!”
During those quiet early Saturday morning hours, just before sleep overtook us, I thought of making my first communion in this very church, and of my confirmation and of my father lying in a coffin only a few feet from the point where my son and I now slept. And, I thought of Father Mac, the brash, funny young priest from Brooklyn. I thought of the great irony of Father Mac leaving Angola for an assignment at St. Gertrude’s Church on a bayou at Des Allemands – Des Allemands means “The Germans.” Father Mac went to sleep in his bed at St. Gertrude one night and failed to wake up the next morning.
I am glad Father Mac and I were able to spend at least snippets of time together at Angola, joking, talking and sharing meals and memories.
The young priest had taught me that, if you have faith – unshakable faith – there’s indeed great power to move mountains not only by what is said, but even in what is not said. Faith says it all for you.
Early in the summer of 2012, newly named Archbishop Gregory Aymond (a native New Orleanian) reopened St. Henry’s Church for special services such as funerals and weddings, then announced that daily Mass would again be celebrated at St. Henry’s.
Shortly after that reopening, the Feast of St. Henry Mass was celebrated at the old red brick church on Gen. Pershing Street. After Mass, festivities included a block party with beer, food and music by the funky J. Monque’D Blues Band.
And in that crowd of about 1,000, old veterans of St. Henry’s swigged beer and BS’ed the evening away, and those who knew Father Mac told tales of him, toasted him and swore that his spirit was right there among them, guzzling a brew or two, telling jokes, laughing and reminding everybody that the reason they were all here on that day, celebrating the re-opening of the church that would not die was because … they all had faith.