The pied piper of Tremé and elsewhere
22nd January 2013 · 0 Comments
By Fr. Jerome LeDoux
Armand Francis Xavier Theri-ault was a second-year novice in September1947 when I him as a first-year novice at the SVD seminary in Techny Illinois 20 miles north of Chicago. An amazing 92 of us in those two classes is now a near unimaginable number as we struggle to scrounge a handful of novices for today’s one-year novitiate.
From day one, Frank was an ever-congenial, happy novice who became a loyal friend trustworthy and reliable under all conditions. Eager to work among the Deep South African Americans, he, Ed Bauer, Bernard Keller and Jack Sheerin came to St. Augustine Seminary in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi in 1950 after college in Epworth, Iowa.
They formed the white contingent among some 18 otherwise Black students in the Major Seminary. A perfect fit, they quickly assimilated the Black culture, identifying with the Black community in all its goals, dreams, strategies, ethnic struggles and celebrations.
A year later, George Heffner and August Langenkamp came down to Bay St. Louis with me and two other classmates, Joseph and Raymond Guidry (no kin). This completed an integrated seminary community that worked to the huge benefit of everyone. We were a solid team, studying philosophy and theology with a practical ethnic bent.
“Sunnybank” was a half-century-old, prized SVD retreat situated off the northwest backwaters of the Bay of St. Louis. With a sizeable pier and diving board, it was eagerly used by the brothers, priests and both minor and major seminary students. Every summer, the major seminarians were obliged to stay there six weeks for recreation and work.
Frank Theriault and I could not understand why most sought every opportunity to leave Sunnybank, especially to go to New Orleans, while we never got enough swimming, fishing and boating, sometimes with a throw net until one o’clock in the morning. Among other gars, we caught a 45-pounder from a skiff on Joe’s Bayou, enough to feed everyone.
Fellow seminarian Elmer Powell gave us the death stare as we giggled ourselves to delirium as a bull dozer operator ate fried gar filets with the rest of us while he protested loudly at the mention of gar, “Oh, I never eat gar!” It seems he never discovered the truth.
Frank and I were called aquatic gorillas by the high school students who could not overwhelm us with their superior numbers. Instead, we routinely sent them flying in all directions with understandably greater strength, balance and endurance. All this was a proving ground for us that would be invaluable in our parish work among the youth.
“T” told me about such a test at a church parish where he took the boys for a swim in a large lagoon. On the constant lookout, he noticed one boy was missing. An extended dive brought him to the drowning youngster whom he fortunately managed to revive.
An amazing look-alike to heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano, Frank had the same body frame of 5’10” weighing 184 pounds and even sporting the blue beard. Imagine Frank’s surprise when he was mistaken on the streets of Brockton, Massachusetts for native Rocky Marciano. I personally felt his crushing half-nelson grip while wrestling.
The enduring image of Frank “T” Theriault on the streets of Faubourg Treme in New Orleans is of a Pied Piper trailed endlessly by younger boys and adolescents from the ranks of altar servers, the CYO and just plain hangers-on. No pedophilia there. There was only the adoring loyalty, respect, good behavior, fun and love for the whole community.
Folks at St. Augustine Church still speak of him with deep nostalgia, especially those who were children during his pastorate. He cared for the sick and the well, but, even more, he lived among the people, celebrating their lives, their joys and their sorrows. “He was everything a priest is supposed to be,” observed church member Sandra Gordon.
“Remember, Jerome,” T would remind me periodically, “you and I agreed to dedicate our praying of the Sext (noon) and None (3 p.m.) canonical hours of the breviary to one another for the benefit of our vocation! This is important for us on our journey!” From his lofty vantage point, he can do me and all of us a lot more spiritual good now.
We can all learn vital lessons from T. So well did he identify with Blacks that some folks to this day think that T was Black. Bruisingly strong, he was a gentle man who did not want to cause anyone trouble. Full of fun, he was a praying man who relied on God.
This article was originally published in the January 21, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper