This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life

September 3, 2009

A “somewhat unorthodox but committed priesthood”: Gumbo, Revisited

Filed under: NOLA Post-Katrina Levee Break — Tags: , , , — pprscribe @ 12:59 am

This week I have dedicated my blog posting to observing the 4th anniversary of the post-Katrina levee breaches in New Orleans, Louisiana. Monday I linked to a gumbo-like mix of posts from mainstream and alternative media about progress (and lack of such) in the region, and Tuesday I re-posted from a former blog my reflections about what it means to be New Orleans—from a cousin (me) a couple times removed. Today I want to follow-up on a distant relative that I introduced to you in Tuesday’s post, Father Jerome LeDoux.

Let me just say at first that I beg your forgiveness and ask you to indulge me. I usually do not go on and on about my kin. But here I just cannot help it. Simply put: my late grandmother’s first cousin is a Bad Ass—in the most complimentary sense of the word. It may be disrespectful to describe a man of the cloth in that manner. But there it is.

Next, let me recap how I first met Father LeDoux. Although I grew up hearing about him, I never actually met him until he delivered the eulogy at my maternal grandmother’s funeral. His service was rousing. Beyond delivering the Word, he told heartfelt family stories about my grandmother that made her come alive once more for all of us. He told of seeing her at a family function celebrating the ordaining of his older brother, when she was a twenty something young woman and he just a young buck…of his like-aged cousin remarking how “fine” my grandmother was and being chastised by an older relative: “Boy, don’t be talkin about her that way! That’s blood!” He talked about her music and her way of bringing people together and making people happy—even in times when she herself was suffering. He called her “peacemaker” and proclaimed, after Matthew 5:9, her to be “bless-ed.” He led us all in singing joyous songs celebrating her life, sending her home in style.

What I recall most, though, was how he looked. He looked vibrant, glowing with health, much younger than his years. And he wore sandals. Birkenstocks, I think. Had I not known any better, I would have thought he was an illustration of the carpenter Jesus, stepped off of a page of an illustrated Bible.

The fact that he impacted me so much, in just a few hours of knowing him, makes it unsurprising to me how strongly his parishioners reacted when they heard, in 2006, that Father LeDoux was going to be ousted, and that St. Augustine—the oldest African American Roman Catholic Church in the United States and the church he led for 16 years—would be “consolidated”:

Father LeDoux, 76, one of few Black Catholic priests in New Orleans and undoubtedly the most beloved, will be replaced by a white priest, Rev. Michael Jacques.

The fact that Jacques is being brought in is a clear indication that the Archdiocese wants to get rid of LeDoux, who is know for hard-hitting but God-inspired columns in the Louisiana Weekly newspaper and other publications.

…His weekly celebrations of faith spoke to the souls of all parishioners. So popular were his masses that his Sunday mass attracted visitors from all over the world. And because LeDoux speaks at least five languages, he greeted and often conversed with celebrants from France, Germany, Sweden, Russia, and Rome in their own languages.

From jazzy versions of the “Our Father” prayer to the incorporation of the Negro spirituals, “This Little Light of Mine,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “We Shall Overcome,” and even the soul-stirring Motown hit, “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” when you attended Rev. LeDoux’s masses, you left with the gospel within and a respect and love for all humanity.

…[T]he wholesale gentrification and ethnic cleansing that is going on in New Orleans today – from voter disenfranchisement to FEMA’s lack of response to developers and their redevelopment plans – is catching, and the Roman Catholic Church is doing its part to repel Black leadership such as LeDoux’s. [Source]

Supporters, however, did not let this action move forward quietly.

In response, St. Augustine’s was reopened for a time:

Archbishop Alfred Hughes said Saturday that he will reopen historic St. Augustine parish for 18 months, giving its parishioners a chance to meet recovery benchmarks they and the archdiocese worked out in two days of behind-the-scenes meetings last week.

The agreement, which all sides praised as a “win/win,” ends the most contentious public dispute in recent memory within the local Catholic community.

Under the agreement, a handful of protesters on Saturday left the St. Augustine rectory they had occupied for 20 days.

…The archdiocese said St. Augustine had been limping for years, unable to offer its relatively few families a full array of ministries, and regularly subsidized by an archdiocese that, after Katrina, could no longer afford to do so.

Parishioners protested. Standing on high ground near the French Quarter, St. Augustine had not flooded, although it reportedly received about $400,000 in roof and top-down water damage.

Supporters said that because of damage to surrounding churches, St. Augustine was attracting more people and more income after the storm than before. They launched an unsuccessful appeal to Hughes and were readying another one to the Vatican.

Their relatively thin ranks were significantly swelled by self-described barely Catholic and non-Catholic friends of St. Augustine. The newcomers said they valued the church as an anchor for the Treme neighborhood, for LeDoux’s somewhat unorthodox but committed priesthood, and for the parish’s historical importance in the cultural and spiritual life of the city. [Source]

The story of Father LeDoux and St. Augustine’s reached far beyond NOLA, including becoming the centerpiece of a documentary. In August of 2007 Variety reviewed Shake the Devil Off*:

St. Augustine Church, built by freed slaves, forms the heart of the city’s Treme district. During the hurricane and its tragic aftermath, residents and parishioners looked to both the church and its priest, the Rev. Jerome LeDoux, for stability and comfort. However, in February 2006, the local archdiocese, led by Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes, decided to transfer LeDoux and unite St. Augustine with the neighboring parish.

Unsurprisingly, the decision was deeply unpopular with the locals, many of whom view the historic parish and its pastor as a constant element in their devastated lives. LeDoux, an energetic man in his mid-70s with a shock of white hair and a warmly resonant voice, refused to criticize the move, but his disagreement was clear.

Multiracial parishioners rallied to the cause, petitioning the diocesan council, but their appeals were ignored until word leaked out and everyone from local students to Al Sharpton made clear the archdiocese had better prepare for continuous acts of civil disobedience. By docu’s end, St. Augustine has been saved, but a final title makes it clear the Catholic Church was simply buying time before cleaning up business.

Though there’s no overt editorializing, the filmmaker sees race as the major factor in the Church’s decision: Apparently all but one member of the archdiocese’s panel was Caucasian, and the Rev. Michael Jacques — the painfully white-bread, seemingly arrogant priest slated to replace the charismatic, dashiki-sporting LeDoux — surely should have realized the conflict of interest inherent in writing up the parish plan. Whatever the reasons behind the consolidation, docu makes clear the archbishop and his spokesmen had no idea how to work PR, allowing the resulting fracas to resemble a case of rich white folk once again marginalizing poor blacks.

I’ve not seen the documentary. But it is interesting that this description of it mirrors my own in-person interaction with my distant relative:

In the film, Fr. LeDoux talks about post-traumatic stress, but he then describes it as post-Katrina stress, which is to say that suffering it still going on to this day. Many people died after the storm and many people are still dying prematurely because of the storm. Many people have just given up. Family members died, homes were destroyed, people lost their jobs, and sometimes it was difficult for people to go on. Over the course of filming for five weeks, Fr. LeDoux was involved in many funerals, sometimes three in one day. And when you watch the film, you notice that funerals pace the story. The film begins with a funeral. [Source]

In my original “Gumbo” blog post I asked, “What is this really a story of?” Peter Entell, the Shake the Devil Off filmmaker, says in an interview: “Every story has an address.” So I know the address of the story—New Orleans, Louisiana, USA–and I know some of the players. And I have a sense of Father LeDoux as one (of many) storytellers.

Maybe that is enough to know for now.

*Father LeDoux also makes an appearance—or, at least, his words about Katrina do (scroll down under Danny Glover)—in the film based on the work of historian Howard Zinn, The People Speak.

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