Many New Orleans Parishioners Move On, but Some Vow to Stay

By Katy Reckdahl
The Times-Picayune

November 2, 2008

Parishioners from one shuttered Catholic church tearfully danced from their now-silent building to their new parish Sunday. But at two other closed churches, a few hundred resolute worshippers gathered for prayer services and vowed to reverse the archdiocesan orders shutting them down.

As worshippers walked into the closed Church of St. Henry, some trod tentatively, looking for visible changes from the previous Sunday, when, according to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the final Mass was said.

Everything appeared normal. Basins of holy water were available to those who wished to dip their fingers and make the sign of the cross. Fierce autumn sunlight streamed through stained-glass windows. And on the altar stood vases of fresh white lilies.

"It looks the same," said Cindy Hebert, with a tinge of hope in her voice.

St. Henry's and the nearby Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church were closed Oct. 26 by the archdiocese as part of a sweeping reorganization plan that has shut down nearly three dozen parishes in the region. Under that plan, parishioners at St. Henry's and Good Counsel became part of the newly formed Good Shepherd Parish at St. Stephen Catholic Church.

Churches no more

Good Counsel and St. Henry are "no longer parish churches," Archbishop Alfred Hughes said in statement Friday. Hughes is permitting three November weddings, which were booked in advance. Other than that, he will not allow any celebration of the Eucharist, sacraments or liturgical services inside the two buildings, Hughes wrote.

But Alden Hagardorn, 54, said he had attended Mass at St. Henry's for his entire life, and he didn't plan to simply walk away. "It's worth the fight," he said. "And we'll do this as long as it takes."

There is no timeline for the buildings to be vacated, archdiocesan spokeswoman Sarah Comiskey said. "The archdiocese is not taking steps to forcibly remove anyone and hasn't asked anyone to leave," she said. "But as far as we're concerned, St. Henry's and Our Lady of Good Counsel are suppressed parishes and everything should be moved to St. Stephen."

Outside St. Henry's main doors, neighbor Leonce Malm, 87, thanked Hagardorn for planning Sunday's vigil. Malm joined St. Henry's several decades ago, she said, after she became pregnant with her first child and had walked there to be blessed by the parish priest.

But on Sunday, no parish priest or acolytes went in procession down the aisle carrying the cross or candles. Instead, parishioners sat quietly, each of them clutching rosary beads and looking for a signal from the front.

That came from the man in a polo shirt and khakis, Hagardorn, who said he was hopeful. "We are a force to be reckoned with," he said, making the sign of the cross and leading his fellow parishioners in saying the rosary.

'Eucharist is not present'

After last week's final Masses, any remaining Eucharist was removed from St. Henry's and Our Lady of Good Counsel, Comiskey said. And as any practicing Catholic knows, she said, what differentiates a Catholic Mass other services is the moment of consecration, when the bell rings, signaling that the host has become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. That is no longer possible at the closed churches, she said. "The Eucharist is not present in the church," she said.

Some Uptown churches have given up the fight. On Sunday, congregants from St. Frances de Sales, a closed Central City church, met at their silent building and second-lined to Holy Ghost Church on Louisiana Avenue, home of the newly created St. Katharine Drexel Parish, a combination of St. Francis de Sales and two other parishes, New Orleans and Holy Ghost.

Congregations grow

Not far away, at St. Stephen, home of the newly created Good Shepherd Parish, regular parishioners estimated that about 100 unfamiliar people sat among them at Sunday's 10:30 a.m. Mass, although no one could say whether they came from St. Henry's or Our Lady of Good Counsel.

Three of those new faces at St. Stephen belonged to twins Verina Maney and Veronica Lee and their friend Loris Saberre. Until Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church was shut down in August, they'd attended services there for decades. They first migrated to St. Henry's but were forced Sunday to shift again to St. Stephen, they said.

At St. Katharine Drexel's early Mass, two of the new faces were from Our Lady Good Counsel. Cheron Brylski went to the Mass with her husband, Harold Baquet, and found the service "virtually empty," a sharp contrast to Good Counsel, she said.

"At this point, we still consider ourselves parishioners of Our Lady of Good Counsel," Brylski said. Inside that much-beloved church, parishioners have maintained a 24-hour vigil, she said.

After the early service at St. Katharine Drexel, Brylski and Baquet went to Good Counsel. At 11:00, Baquet walked to the front of the church to introduce the prayer service. He, like other parishioners, expressed hope that they might once again attend Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Good Counsel.

But until that day arrives, Baquet said, "this humble little prayer service dedicated to Our Mother is the best we can do."

Valerie Faciane contributed to this story. Katy Reckdahl can be reached at or 504.826.3396.


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