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Weekly masses back in 2013 at ‘suppressed’ OLGC

26th December 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

It was nearly four years ago, that then-New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes announced that the sit-ins of parishioners trying to stop the “suppression” of their Uptown churches, St. Henry’s and Our Lady of Good Council, had ended—when the archdiocese asked the NOPD to remove the worshipers.

At a press conference held only a few hours later, it was this reporter informed a suddenly befuddled Archbishop that several Good Council parishioners had hidden in a closet, avoided arrest, and their sit-in continued. They refused to end their months long vigils of 24-hour rosaries and occupations of their parishes—praying that their historic places of worship would not be permanently closed to the families that had grown up in the pews.

These vigilists would not let their churches die without a fight, albeit one of prayerful non-violence. It was a lesson learned from the congregants from the historically African-American St. Augustine Parish in the Faubourg Tremé.

The arrival of New Orleans-born Archbishop Gregory Aymond brought not only détente in the struggle, but an acknowledgement that if the parishioners were willing to merge their congregations together—something that was never in dispute by any of the protestors as the churches in question sat only blocks from one another—then a limited worship schedule, and some special services, could occur at St. Henry’s and Good Council. And, regular weekly masses might be able to recommence in the future—something will come to pass at Good Council in 2013.

As Barbara Fortier, the leader of the Good Council stalwart, put it, “The parish is still suppressed but the church is open occasionally. Archbishop Aymond allows us to open every Good Friday as part of the Nine Churches Walk, we are allowed to have one mass a year for the feast day of Our Lady of Good Counsel in April, we have a Christmas Concert every December, funerals are allowed and we are open every Wednesday at 6 p.m. for the rosary.”

“Our group is a bit smaller today than it was four years ago, some people just moved on. When our parish was combined with St. Stephen’s some people went there, others joined St. Mary’s Assumption, some church hop, others stopped attending mass and I know of one family that began attending the Episcopal Church.”

Still, she said, Good Council and St. Henry’s continue, despite their official merger with nearby St. Stephens. Alden Hagardorn, former President of the Parish Council of St. Henry’s, noted to The Louisiana Weekly that the yearly St. Henry’s free festival continues, as do the traditions of his former parish. The Archdiocese achieved its goal to reduce overhead by integrating the priestly and clerical operations, but the churches, while “suppressed” as separate parishes still were able to maintain their identity as places of worship. And, that’s all that the sit-ins sought to achieve.

“There has been a totally different spirit since Archbishop Aymond came in,” Hagardorn explained. The current head of the Archdiocese was a protégé of the late Phillip Hannan, and the former Archbishop let it be known privately that he did not agree with his successor Alfred Hughes’ move to force absolute closure on the churches. As one insider put it on the condition of anonymity, the former Archbishop Hannan had said during the vigils, “If people want to save their churches, who are we to stop them?”

As soon as the Vatican announced that the unusual step of appointing a new Archbishop born in the city over which he would be primate (upon Alfred Hughes’ retirement), Fortier explained, “The Our Lady of Good Counsel group reached out and sent Archbishop Aymond a letter while he was still in Austin asking that he consider meeting with us upon his arrival. We were very pleased that he replied and said he would be open to meeting with us.”

“Our first meeting with Archbishop Aymond was in September 2009 and we had six meetings over the next eighteen months. In the beginning Archbishop Aymond listed to our story; there was a lot of anger and we had to work through it. Archbishop Aymond was always upfront with us, he told us from the beginning that the parish would not be reopened. But that did not mean that we could not come up with a use for the church.”

“Archbishop Aymond has always been accessible; if I sent him a letter he replied, if I called he returned my call. Archbishop Aymond has been compassionate, spiritual, a wonderful leader and healer.”

The struggle to integrate the churches and the months of staged sit-ins, hurt the overall attendance of both congregations, and the subsequently merged Uptown parish, so Gentilly-born Aymond hit upon a particularly local solution. The Charismatic Catholics who met at a former convent on Rampart Street were in need of a new home. Damage dating from before Hurricane Katrina, and exacerbated by that storm and later ones, was making their French Quarter church uninhabitable. He came to the answer of joining them to the smaller congregation at Good Council, as a means of fulfilling his promise to restart a weekly mass schedule.

However, bringing the vocal worship patterns of Charismatics together with the more solemn progressions of an older parish, at first, seemed problematic. In the end, according to Fortier, that merger, though, appears to be off to a good beginning.

“In December 2011 Archbishop Aymond made the announcement that The Center for Jesus the Lord would be moving to Our Lady of Good Counsel. Over the past year we have had several meetings with the leaders from the Center discussing the restoration of the church and rectory. Some of the Our Lady of Good Counsel parishioners have visited the center to experience the charismatic worship and people from the center have visited OLGC. So far that has been it; we won’t really know the outcome until the center group officially moves.”

“Our meetings have been respectful, we have certainly had some difficult issues to work through but we are now in the home stretch,” Fortier said. “When the church is reopened the Sunday morning mass will charismatic, it will be up to the individuals whether are not they attend at OLGC or at a neighboring church.”

Still, by relocating the Charis­matic congregation, weekly masses begin again, a goal that the Good Counsel vigilists began with when they started the sit-ins four years ago. And, that makes Fortier pleased, and eternally appreciative that the number one goal of her group has been achieved. As she pointed out, “The idea of moving the Center of Jesus the Lord was Archbishop Aymond’s. We are thankful for his commitment to finding a resolution to this painful situation.”

As for what lessons can be learned from the church battle and the subsequent integrations, and how other Catholic dioceses around the nation and world can apply them to parish mergers in the future, Fortier reflects that taking a stand does make a difference. It was a truth illuminated to the St. Henry’s and OLGC vigilists from the determined congregants of the oldest African-American Catholic parish in the nation.

“In 2006 when the closure / suppression of St. Augustine Parish was announced the parishioners began the 24-hour vigils. They gained national media attention, Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton came down and the diocese relented. St. Augustine is still open today.

“St. Augustine holding the 24-hour vigils sent a precedent of what worked. We decided to follow their example; after all it was a successful plan. We still don’t understand why the vigils did not work at OLGC; we too had met and superseded the criteria that had been given to us in 2006 by the diocese.

“Hopefully there won’t be any further parish suppressions in the future. We certainly understand that there is a shortage of priests however in rural communities across the country parishes share priests; perhaps if necessary this is something that would be considered. Of course fiscal responsibility is part of the equation; the parish has to be self-sustaining.”

This article was originally published in the December 26, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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