OUTSIDE THE GATE OF ST. HENRY’S CHURCH
Gregory Aymond begins his first full month as Archbishop of the New Orleans Archdiocese. We wish him well. We wish him wisdom. We also wish he could have seen what we saw this past July 11 at a block party on the 800 block of Gen. Pershing Street. The event was the annual St. Henry’s parish reunion. From outward appearances 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’s parish are among the most spirited parishioners in all of Catholicism.
For all the joy, however, there was something inherently sad about the event. In past years the reunion was held on 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 Aymond was announced as that successor, however, he offered little hope, saying in effect that while he was willing to listen, he wouldn’t 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 didn’t see a problem with allowing retired priests to say Mass there – which is what the denied parishioners are looking for.
In many ways Archbishop Hughes seemed to be a man with good intentions. Those who know him say that he did many charitable works there, without publicity, including prison ministries and aiding immigrants. He also had the thankless task of 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’s and nearby Our Lady of Good Counsel 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 former bishop and his advisers just didn’t get it.
Later that July 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’s church. The audience cheered.
We suspect that the mantra in the Archbishop’s office is “this too shall pass.” We pray that the new bishop does not assume the same attitude, because, after what we saw the evening of July 11 – it won’t. We hope he gives quick priority to healing wounds.