PERSONA: Fr. William F. Maestri

Can a nice Presbyterian girl like me have a crush on a nice Catholic priest? If the priest in question is Fr. William Maestri, I would have to say “yes.” Fr. Maestri first came to my attention when I was channel surfing one night and came upon the WLAE 32 TV show, “Issues & Faith,” of which he is host and moderator. I don’t remember the topic exactly, but his articulate answers and calm demeanor impressed me. I’ve tuned in periodically and even if I don’t agree with some of his viewpoints, I’ve always respected what he said and came away with a different perspective on a situation. To me, he is a Renaissance man.

But it wasn’t until I met him that I realized he truly is a Renaissance man – author of more than 40 books; columnist for the Clarion Herald; taught theology, law and philosophy; spoken before committees of the state legislature and the U.S. Congress on matters of public policy; a host and moderator of the aforementioned local TV show; and in a pinch, he’s a registered radiological technologist – yes, he can take your X-rays.

His official job title – in addition to being a priest – is Superintendent of Catholic Schools and Director of Communications, Archdiocese of New Orleans. It’s a job that he takes very seriously. Since Hurricane Katrina, 88 of the 107 archdiocese schools in eight parishes have re-opened to serve almost 43,000 students. The Catholic schools were the first to reopen and took any metro-area displaced student – without requiring tuition. He is outspoken and firm in his belief in implementing a school voucher system.

And yet, despite this seriousness, there’s an unexpected whimsical side to Fr. Maestri. Unexpected to me, because I’m used to my authority figures – especially men of the cloth – being a bit somber. So imagine my surprise to find out that Fr. Maestri likes to dance and sing – he’s a baritone – with the complementary motto, “If you do it, do it loud.” He’s even performed at Rock ‘N Bowl for a Catholic schools fundraiser. But what else would you expect from a native New Orleanian? Especially one who is also known as the “Chaplain of College Inn” and has been known to dance at dba on Frenchman Street. Maestri is that distinctly New Orleans combination of earnestness and joy – and I doubt we would want him any other way.

Age: 58 Born: Aug. 29, 1948 in New Orleans at Hotel Dieu (better known now as University Hospital) High School: Cor Jesu, which merged with St. Aloysius College to become Brother Martin (Cor Jesu’s original site). Graduated in 1966. College/Graduate degrees: Right after high school, Fr. Maestri became a registered radiological technologist. He then went to St. Joseph Seminary College, where he received a degree in philosophy with a minor in history. Maestri completed his studies for priesthood at Notre Dame Seminary. Then came a master’s degree in philosophy from Tulane University and studying philosophy at University of California, Berkeley.  Family: Ferdinand and Elaine Elizabeth Maestri, both are in their 90s. He is the second cousin of former Mayor Robert Maestri. His brother, Brian, has worked for the Corps of Engineers for 12 years and is currently in charge of emergency preparedness. Favorite book: The Bible. He is currently reading The Wealth of Cities by John Norquist  Favorite movie: “Casablanca” Favorite food: Lasagna Favorite restaurant: Cafe Marigny Favorite musician: Doris Day Favorite sport: Tennis Favorite vacation spot: California. Malibu, in particular – he taught at Pepperdine Law School.  “I never had a bad day in California. I like the people. There’s an attitude of live and let live, and no attempt to tell people how to run their lives, which I think is very important,” he says. Place you have never been to, but want to: Hawaii and Normandy.

When were you ordained as a priest? In 1977.
Are you a Jesuit? No. I’m a Catholic. [Ed. note: He laughs. According to him it’s a standard joke answer to the question.] I am a Diocesan priest. I’m not a religious order person.

Which Popes have you met? I met Pope John Paul II.  I think John Paul II will eventually be known as John Paul the Great. The reason I say that is because John Paul changed the papacy, and what I mean by that is John Paul became a pastor to the world, through his travels, through his writing.

Most people will tell you that he wrote 14 encyclicals [letters of instruction in the faith]. His last one was on the Eucharist. I will tell you that he wrote 14, but he gave to the world 15 encyclicals. And the 15th encyclical is the way in which he ended his life. He continued to serve, continued to be Pope, even in the midst of his illness and frailty. And that was an important  teaching to a world that is very much involved in the culture of death. I’m speaking about assisted suicide. What John Paul II did was teach us what it means to die with dignity. He taught us there is no such thing as a life unworthy of life. And the end of his life was an eloquent testimony to the dignity of all people.

What do you think are some of the problems Orleans Parish public schools face? The facilities and the personnel – getting enough teachers. Many teachers look upon their jobs as having job security. Education is not about jobs – it’s about children.

And, the public schools are too centralized. But I’m enthusiastic about the charter school system. I am very supportive of public, Catholic and private education. But I think there needs to be a good public education system.

Talk to me about school vouchers. Another important issue to me is school choice – school vouchers. That is providing public money to those who want to send their children to private schools. I’ve testified before U.S. Congress – the Senate and the House – in terms of educational issues as the superintendent of schools.

What happens is that parents pay taxes twice – once for public, then private school tuition. I am in favor of making public money available to a parent to make a choice. Competition is good and can only lead to better schools all around.

Are there any Catholic school students getting vouchers? We are educating 1,500 former public school students who cannot pay tuition, which is being paid for from the archdiocese scholarships and foundation. There is a PreK4 program that has vouchers, which can be used for Catholic, private or public schools.

And notice the civilization as we know it hasn’t ended. So, I’m always amazed … we can have vouchers for houses and rent, vouchers for food, but when it comes to education, you can’t have them. I’m very, very confused over that.

What are you are trying to do to improve Catholic schools?
We want all of our teachers to be certified, as they are in public schools. To make all of our elementary schools part of the Southern Association accreditation – our high schools already are. And to increase students performance in science and math.

What’s going on with St. Augustine Church?  [Ed.note: There was an uproar when the archdiocese tried to close it.] We’ve given them 18 months [beginning April, 2006] to become a fully serviced Catholic parish. That entails having a full mass schedule – one mass every day of the week. Also, having a religious education program in place and become financially solvent – that would be important. There would be efforts to have outreaches to those in the surrounding community that may be in need of basic social services.
We never asked St. Augustine to be more than any other parish was, but at the same time, we do not expect them to be anything less.

Were they fulfilling any of these requirements before? There was Mass, but we want these other things in place. And that’s what we’re working to establish.

What can New Orleanians do to help with the recovery? I think the most important thing is to be committed to your daily life and projects that you have. I think having a presence works. And especially if you are a family, to send your children to the city’s schools, so these children can help the city recover. Because schools are the key to the recovery of our city.

So tell me about being the “Chaplain of College Inn.” We have a little group that goes to the College Inn. We lock the door at 11 p.m. and put on the music of Dean Martin, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. And a bunch of us sing and dance until 2 in the morning. We have about three to four ladies who join us, Judge Dennis Waldron and others. Judge Waldron says it’s the only place in the world that Frank Sinatra sings background.

True confession: I have a crush on Dawn Brown, who does the weather for WWW/Channel 4. I danced with her at a fundraiser at Rock ‘N Bowl, though she does the weather better than she dances, [Ed. note: he says with a smile.]

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