St. Francis De Sales Parishioners Protest Merger

By Katy Reckdahl
The Times-Picayune

July 06, 2008

On Sunday, for the first time, parishioners of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church openly raised their voices against the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Gray-haired ladies, men in crisp suits and young families stood on the front steps of the colossal wooden church in Central City to wave handwritten signs of protest and to chant, "Save our church, save our history."

Archbishop Alfred Hughes announced April 9 that St. Francis will merge with nearby Holy Ghost Parish, as part of a plan that will close 33 parishes by year's end.

The parishioners began fighting then - but behind closed doors, said longtime parishioner Lydwina Hurst. They reminded church officials that their 39-year-old Catholic gospel choir was the first of its kind in the United States, she said.

Gloria Williams, a member of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church since 1976, shouts "Save our church" during a press conference Sunday.
Matthew Hinton

She and other parishioners also requested, unsuccessfully, the specific financial data and benchmarks used by the archdiocese to judge the viability of their 141-year-old congregation. They then asked the archbishop to meet with them. He declined.

"So we're coming forward now, to publicly express our dissatisfaction," Hurst said.

Parishioners felt particularly injured after Sunday's Mass, led by a new priest. During the service, The Rev. John Cisewski, conducting his first service at the church, read a letter from the archbishop. In it, Hughes welcomed the priest to his new role - as pastor of Holy Ghost. There was no mention of St. Francis.

Others were stung because Hughes snubbed St. Francis, which had tried to be cooperative, and instead visited St. Henry and Our Lady of Good Counsel churches, where parishioners have loudly assailed the archdiocesan plan.

Archdiocese spokeswoman Sarah Comiskey said that Hughes had celebrated Mass at the other two churches but has not sat down with any opposition groups. She confirmed that Cisewski has been appointed pastor of Holy Ghost but said that he will say Mass weekly at St. Francis until the parishes merge on Dec. 31, a plan that the archdiocese is determined to implement, she said.

But those chanting in front of St. Francis were also determined.

"We thought we had met all the criteria to stay open," Sandra Thomas said as she walked out of the church. She and her husband, Isaac Thomas, were married there, and they don't find the same sort of "rich spiritual nurturing" anywhere else, she said.

Civil rights veteran Sandra Thomas was jailed in Mississippi in the early 1960s for participating in the Freedom Rides. "But I never envisioned in my life that at age 66 I would have to fight the Archdiocese of New Orleans for the love of my church," she said.

Katy Reckdahl can be reached at or 504.826.3396.


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