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The Shepherds and the Wolves April 9, 2008

Posted by The Typist in 504, 8-29, Flood, Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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Last night we took a woman and her daughter to dinner at Liuzza’s and to Brocatos, people my wife knew in North Dakota who came here on a Lutheran Church mission to work on homes in St. Bernard Parish for the St. Bernard Project. The church that hosted them was an Evangelical Lutheran Church led by a pastor who himself lived through the disastrous flood of Grand Forks, N.D. and who willingly took on to rebuild a church and congregation here in Lakeview.

What happened here, my wife told her friend, had reaffirmed her faith in organized religion: so many religious volunteers have come and done so much work. I wanted to disagree, but I bit my tongue. It is not organized religion that is rebuilding our community, and most certainly not the church my family professes, the Roman Catholic Church.

My own growing distaste for that institution (not its people, mind you; certainly not all of the clergy) was firmly cemented when It joined the pantheon of clannish hate cults, jumping up to their too-tight clerical collars into the Gays Aren’t People campaign of the last few election cycles. My loathing was made stronger watching the local hierarchy decide without explanation which parishes would live and which would die in the post-Federal Flood city, especially the painful episodes of St. Augustine’s and St. Francis Cabrini. the “cathedral of the lakefront“.

One simple fact to know about The Church, or any church: where parishes returned, congregations followed. Where pulpits were left empty and the churches left filled with the rotting remains of vestments and missals, people were slow to return if they came back at all.

Witness the miraculous recovery of the Vietnamese-American community of New Orleans East, an area like most of those east of the Industrial Canal lade completely to waste. Led by Father Vien Thé Nguyen, Our Lady Queen of Vietnam first sheltered those who stayed for the storm then led the recovery of their community.

Or look at Lakeview. Fr. Paul Watkins, the parochial vicar (associate pastor) of St. Dominic Catholic Church in there , told Brian Denser of WTUL’s Community Gumbo in 2007: “we have spearheaded the recovery…everywhere the priests were allowed to return those neighborhoods have come back. The parishes that were closed…the neighborhoods are all exceptionally grim.”

Now, take a drive in the area around Parish Avenue where Cabrini Church once stood to you can understand what other areas of the city looked like, say, two years ago.

Today the Archdiocese of New Orleans will announce the closure of additional parishes. These are not those drowned by the failure of the federal levees. Take for example Our Lady of Good Counsel on Louisiana Avenue in Uptown new Orleans. Accomplished local novelist (and blogger) Poppy Z. Brite distributed a statement that tells us the story of the church where she was just baptized into the Catholic faith this past Easter:

This 114-year-old church ministers to 450 families, including a large number of elderly and disabled parishioners who do not have the ability to travel to another church. Both OLGC and another historic Uptown church, St. Henry’s (which is 152 years old and ministers to 300 families) are to be closed in April. Our Lady of Good Counsel was one of the first Catholic churches to reopen in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Since then, we have repaired the
minor wind damage we sustained in the storm, doubled the size of our congregation, and made great progress toward paying off our debt to the archdiocese. Our congregation ministers to the local poor through the St. Vincent de Paul Society and other organizations, and we hold a popular St. Joseph’s altar each March 19, where the saint is honored and the public is fed.

Our Lady of Good Counsel is architecturally significant, with a magnificent high altar, remarkable stained glass windows, a working pipe organ, and other details that would make it part of a standard church tour in any European city. Under the archdiocese’s current
ruling, this beautiful and sacred building will be sold off to the highest bidder and could even be torn down. Only in New Orleans do we have so many unseen treasures, and only in New Orleans, it seems, are we so ready to throw them away.

An arch diocese, indeed.

Here is the beautiful building the Archdiocese intends to sell off to the highest bidder. Given the building type , unless another faith’s congregation takes it over it will be demolished. I wish the same fate on those who would demolish this as others wish on the Taliban who demolished the great cliff Buddhas. The two groups differ only in degree, not kind.

In the aftermath of the attempts to destroy the nation’s oldest African-American Catholic congregation and the demolition of Cabrini Church, I’m near speechless. What more can I say about Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes and his arch-henchman Fr. William Maestri? Having dropped the F-bomb more times this week than I have in all the months and years since 8-29, I think this time insteadd I’ll just quote (but not profess) the words of a simple carpenter whose teachings Hughes and Maestri once swore to profess: Forgive them. They know now what they do.

As these new centurions of the Roman Catholic Church draw out the last nail, wagering perhaps over what the auction price will be, it is important we remember this: Our city is being rebuilt by in a very large part by individual volunteers who understand, who have internalized an important part of the message of Jesus: to help the downtrodden, the afflicted and oppressed. They come not at the direction of men with great offices in Rome or opulent television studios in the suburbs of the south. They come because of their personal commitment to live out the charge laid on them twenty centuries ago:

And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.

The Catholic Church, an anchor of this Franco-Iberian founded city, is just another institution that betrays us, just as government–the city, the state, and the central government–have betrayed us. Each of these looked on our suffering and saw an opportunity for profit and advancement. Tomorrow the NOLA Bloggers will bury our good friend Ashley Morris, and we will remember one thing he leaves behind, his own charge to people not his disciples but certainly his comrades: Sinn Fein, Ourselves Alone. The Church’s actions today remind us that the institutions we have trusted are now run not by shepherds but by wolves. We can only save ourselves by our own actions and in spite of them.

Sinn Fein, New Orleans. And thank you, Claudia and all of the volunteers of all faiths (and none) who have come and helped to rebuild our city. May you hold Hughes and Maestri in your prayers and beg for them mercy and forgiveness, for I should give them neither.

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