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Beast of the Epiphany January 7, 2009

Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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4 comments

On Tuesday, Jan. 6 (the Catholic Church’s Feast of the Epiphany and for Orleanian’s the start of the Carnival season), elements of the N.O.P.D. in plain street clothes battered down a 100 year old door and entered Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church arresting parishioners holding a vigil against the church’s closing.

According to the Archdiocese, the closures were necessary due to financial constraints and shortages of priests for the pulpit. But Good Counsel parishioners report they had 350 families on the parish’s books, and had met every performance goal to remain an open church, including financial, and the Archdiocese has broken ever promise made during the process to the parishioners.

I left the church spiritually and physically years ago, but I have kept the bargain’s I made when I married my wife in the church, and seen my children through baptism, their religious education, communion and confirmation. Now, they are on their own, and they can read in my eyes what I think of this Church when these items come on the news. I keep my bargains. The Church does not.

Ultimately this is not about the Church, it is about a church in a neighborhood. Our experience in New Orleans is clear: where churches returned after the Federal Flood, neighborhoods followed. Where the Archdiocese decided to close a church (sometimes to its immense financial profit, as in the case of St. Francis Cabrini), the neighborhood struggled to return.

Not just the uglier voices on the NOLA.Com forums but even some members of the NOLA bloggers mailing list decried the efforts of the parishioners to occupy the churches in spite of unclear title or in open opposition to lawful authority. Someone suggested that those who supported the protesters supported “mob rule” over the rule of law.

Sometimes the rule of law and the established order is so rotten and corrupt to the core that there is no resource but to the mob, or so the founding fathers of this country thought. Archbishop Hughes is of a piece with Nagin, Riley and the rest of our thoroughly corrupt and dysfunctional leaders. Hughes sent a known pedophile back into a parish during his years in Boston, tried to close the oldest predominately Black parish in North America, who appears to be plundering parishes with cash or valuable land to prop up the church post-Flood, with no regard for the people he is anointed to serve.

I see in him corruption like in some Hollywood film–Emperor Palatine, or some zombie creature in a withered, worm eaten body dressed in the robes of it’s office in life. I begin to understand Thomas Jefferson’s defense of the French Revolution and the guillotine. What the hell else do you do with people like this? I’m open to reasonable alternative suggestions.

For now I think it the duty of everyone who loves New Orleans to do what they can to support the protesters and oppose the Archdiocese. As I said, this is not a church issue. This is not a property issue. This is part and parcel of the question we face in every institution and setting in this city: will we allow the corrupt and incompetent to destroy this city around us eve as we try to rebuild it?

***

The clip below leaves out an interesting line at the end (at least of the vinyl recording) when Jesus yells to the lepers: Can’t you heal yourselves?

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That water without sound November 30, 2008

Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.
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6 comments

She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries, “The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens

Has the War on Christmas already begun, and no one told me? The holidays are a difficult time for the unchurched or those of no particular dogma, confronted by those who try (in the best American commercial fashion) to establish an exclusive franchise for their church. Their efforts to make of us A Christian Nation are at least a part of the problem I have with organized religion.

I was raised Catholic, like so many in New Orleans, just old enough to be the among the last who made First Communion in Latin. Outside of a brief episode resulting from watching The Robe with a high fever, which lead to a week of attending daily 6 a.m. Mass and my mother’s fervent hope that she had spawned a priest, I started drifting away in my teens. It was not just the idle rebellion of the young, who preferred to spend an hour Sunday morning lounging about with cigarettes while our parents thought us at Mass. The literature I read in the 1970s was at least partly to blame: a Baghivad Gita from a begging Krishna, all of Carlos Castaneda, the Zen and Buddhist obsessions of the Beats, Joseph Campbell: it seemed a thousand doors opened into the same space. How could only one be right?

Decades later the Catholic Church shows the same conservative face that banished the Liberation Theologists decades ago and claims a prominent place at the head of the homophobic parade running campaigns to Ban Gay Marriage. Those effort’s sole purpose is to advance the election of factions I oppose with my entire heart and soul, and the Church’s embrace of the proto-fascist edge of conservative America was just another nail driven in.

Just last week the Church announced it was dropping funding of Acorn, and the loud boors on NOLA.Com hooted and stamped their feet in agreement. I found myself researching once again the grounds for excommunication. It seems only appropriate that if I wish to formally sever any ties to such a large, persistent organization with a thousand years of closely-kept records, I should have an embossed piece of paper to file with my baptism and confirmation certificates to close the deal, once and for all.

But it’s too much damned trouble, and as one rational commenter on NOLA.Com pointed out on the discussions of the Acorn funding decision, if you’re as far down the road as researching the rules on excommunication, you’re already there. (There are some rational people on NOLA.Com, and I like to think WetBankGuy is one of them. Why are we there? Someone has to stand against the darkness). Instead of reading up on excommunication, I go read Wallace Stevens epic celebration of the question of unbelief, Sunday Morning.

In truth I can never completely sever my Catholic identify (even if I cannot recite the Nicene Creed with a straight face and an honest heart) unless I am willing to sever my head in the bargain. I was married in the Church, and carried the day with the monsignor who interviewed us for our pre-Cannan conference. With twelve years of Catholic school under my belt (stop snickering, Peter), I quickly knew the answers to all the right questions. It helped immensely when he learned I was from New Orleans. He had shared a room for a while at seminary with former Archbishop Phillip Hannan, and our interview quickly turned into old home week.

To be raised Catholic in this city is to be deeply imprinted not only with a faith but by a complex culture that goes with it. The idea of a secular Jew, someone raised in the faith and its observances who no longer follows them, is well accepted. This city is full of people like me who are indelibly marked by our faith if no longer observant: secular Catholics.

Even as I struggle with how to handle the holidays from now through Christmas–I must go to Mass, of course, for my wife is still a Good Catholic in so many ways even if only a Holy Day of Obligation–it is a time of year when my Catholic identify is reinforced not by the Church but by my family. My visiting father-in-law wanted Mass on Thanksgiving, so I got on the phone and found one not too early, then charged my daughter (who seems to be traveling the same path I did at her age, and does not go happily to church) to take him to St. Anthony of Padua on Canal Street.

The choice of church led by dinner time to a long conversation with my mother as well. St. Anthony was “her church” growing up in Mid-City, and I heard a new story, which is always a treat when sitting with older family members. The church was built by Spanish Dominican fathers, and she is a Dominican girl through and through–high school, college, the alumni association. To this day she is among the last of her circle of confirmed Dominican girls who several times a year break break with the remaining nuns of Dominican College, and if any opening to the subject comes up I will hear how this or that sister is doing. My daughter has a Dominican nun doll dressed in full habit, a gift of her grandmother, and I am sure my mom is disappointed that my daughter is at Ben Franklin and not at Dominican High School.

She told me of the young priests who staffed it in her girl hood were a handsome lot who made the hearts of young Catholic girls flutter. All those young men, she told me, were all sent to the Phillipines in the late 1930s, and were murdered by the Japanese. I don’t remember hearing of girls being enamored of priests when I was young, but perhaps that is a guilty secret they only share among themselves until it is a distant memory of youth and a story to tell the family so that it is remembered. Perhaps it is like our own adolescent discussions of whose mother was “hot”, a hermetic ritual of adolescent boys before our popular culture reached the point where MILF is a common word with no trace of indecency.

New Orleans is inseparable from its churches. Jackson Square is a typical colonial plaza, with St. Louis Cathedral central on one side, flanked by what were once official colonial which are now museums. St. Mary’s just a few blocks away was an 1845 addition to the Ursuline Convent in the French Quarter, the oldest building in the district. The Ursulines were the first women’s order to arrive in New Orleans, and their story is deeply entangled in the story of New Orleans. The tale of their prayers for victory before the statue of Our Lady of Prompt Succor persist to to this day and a mass is still said yearly to commemorate the event.

Every wave of Immigrants from the Catholic countries of southern Europe built their church in their neighborhood, and people are still fiercely loyal to their local. When the current leadership announced the closure of the historically prominent St. Augustine in Treme, the first parish built by and serving African-Americans in the city, led to a raucous confrontation with the Church authorities after the Archbishop’s chief henchman, the unpopular Rev. William Maestri showed up with a police escort to confront the protesters. And the more recent announcement of the closure of several healthy, active parishes in the Uptown area has lead to members occupying the deconsecrated buildings and suing in the cannon courts of Rome to have the decision overturned.

I am not fond of Maestri (if the use of the term henchman did not give this away) for his role as the Archbishops right hand man after the storm, particularly his role in the destruction of Cabrini Catholic Church. Whenever his name comes up (and as the spokesman of the Archdiocese and it’s chief enforcer, it frequently did over the last several years) she would always tell me how wildly unpopular he was when Maestri was assigned to the parish I grew up in, St. Pius X on the Lakefront.

Scratch any Orleanian and you will quickly uncover their own stories of their church. We are not so different that anyone else in this regard, but I have a hard time imagining the members of churches I knew in Minnesota or North Dakota rising up against their own Bishop to save their parish. It’s been done in Boston, but there is something temperamental to the MidWest that would likely prevent it. And living in a place that was still frontier just over a century ago, they don’t have the deep ties to a particular parish and building of people whose family has attended the same church for 150 years or longer.

I remain unchurched for the first time since I met that good Catholic girl from North Dakota. St. Anthony would be my parish were we to present ourselves and sign the register, and I will set foot in it for the first time this week when I no doubt find myself accompanying father-in-law and family to Mass. Once again I will struggle with how to respond, and find myself falling into the ritual and its recitations, but will stand silent for the Nicene Creed. It is a far cry from my mother’s wish to have from her two sons a doctor and priest.

To be unchurched–“unsponsored, free” in the words of Stevens–is not to be militantly atheist or a non-committal agnostic. One old friend detects currents in my life that lead her to invite me to join her at Samhain. I still pick up the old texts of Tao, Buddhism and Zen. The words of Jesus still stir me as they did Thomas Jefferson. It is more complex than that.

And so I will go to communion because it is expected and not out of any sense of communion, and without fear that I commit some heinous sin by taking it. It is not for me the transubstantiated flesh and blood simply because I do not believe. Whatever about the Nicene Creed or the political foibles of bad bishops troubles my mind and soul, the familiar space of Mass is something as comfortable as my own skin, and as easily taken up as required as a spoonful of gumbo. The kind teacher of love with the Sacred Heart is an image as powerful today as when it was first imagined. I will just try to let myself surrender to the moment because it is–not simply as I almost said but in a complex way–an ineradicable part of who I am.

But first, a reading for the First Sunday of Advent in anticipation of the Yule.

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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12 comments

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.