Consultations shape future of New Orleans church after Katrina

By Peter Finney Jr.
Catholic News Service

BATON ROUGE, La. (CNS) -- As everyone in or from south Louisiana understands, Hurricane Katrina changed everything.

Just as individuals and businesses are facing epic challenges and difficult decisions -- Should we go or should we stay? Where should we live? Can we rebuild in the same place? -- the Archdiocese of New Orleans faces those same questions about its future church ministry.

How many residents of St. Bernard and lower Plaquemines civil parishes will be allowed to return to their neighborhoods and rebuild? How many will even want to return? How many low-income persons in Orleans Parish will return to their rental homes or apartments? Will that housing even exist? How many churches will be needed to serve the Catholic population, which before Hurricane Katrina numbered 491,000? How many Catholics will live in the archdiocese five or 10 years from now?

No one appreciates a challenge more than Edmundite Father Michael Jacques, the head of the New Orleans archdiocesan Council of Deans and pastor of St. Peter Claver Church, a powerhouse inner-city parish with a thriving, cross-city congregation named recently as one of the most outstanding in the country.

As head of the deans' council, Father Jacques is driving an accelerated pastoral planning process that will define the Archdiocese of New Orleans over the next century. In the post-Katrina world, the planning process now under way in the archdiocese's 12 deaneries -- or regional grouping of parishes -- is critical and almost impossibly challenging.

"It's like trying to box Jell-O -- every time you try to box it up, another piece falls out," said Father Jacques. "You think you have it all stable, but there's still some that's loose and transient.

"That's the most difficult thing," he added. "We've all been so transient. You get settled and then there's change again. That's what our people are going through."

Two weeks after the Aug. 29 storm, Archbishop Hughes began meeting with pastors and priests of the deaneries that were most damaged: the five deaneries of Orleans Parish and the deaneries in St. Bernard and Algiers-Plaquemines. The archbishop opens each meeting by asking the priests to recount their experiences and the state of their parishes. He also wants to know if they have been able to reconnect with their parishioners scattered across the country.

"We are a virtual church, a church without any walls," Father Jacques said. "The archbishop wants to know what everyone is doing to find their people. He's concerned that we need to be good shepherds."

Since Katrina, Father Jacques has contacted by telephone or e-mail 600 to 700 of his 2,600 parish families. Most of those who have been found are living in Louisiana, Texas and Georgia.

"Our early data indicate that over 95 percent of our folks are going to return," Father Jacques said. "It may not be right at this moment. From what I've heard at the deanery meetings, about 30 to 40 percent of people have returned and about 60 to 70 percent have not returned, but they may return as housing is available."

Archbishop Hughes has established an ambitious deadline for a draft pastoral plan: the preliminary draft is due Dec. 1 and the final draft is scheduled for completion Dec. 30, one day before Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring Back New Orleans Commission is scheduled to release its recovery plan for the city. Archbishop Hughes is a member of the panel.

"He wants to be a step ahead as he goes into those meetings," Father Jacques said.

The priest said the archdiocesan planning process from several years ago -- Catholic Life: 2000 -- would be extremely helpful in the new deliberations, but Archbishop Hughes has asked pastors to look beyond that as well.

"He wants us to have the end in mind," Father Jacques said. "I think we will be a smaller church, but I think we will be a more vibrant church. Because we will be a smaller city, we will be a church that is much more interactive. This is a possibility for us to reach out and be an evangelizing presence."

The consultations might lead to a different configuration of churches and deaneries, Father Jacques said.

"The archbishop is concerned about using the insurance money wisely as we begin planning and making hard decisions about what churches and schools are needed in each community," he said. "He's asking pastors to look creatively, outside the box, and create a new vision and a new church."

Father Jacques said the archbishop would use extreme care to make sure all ethnic groups -- African-Americans, Vietnamese, Hispanics -- have a place to worship.

"He wants to safeguard those ethnic churches, especially to have places where African-Americans, who are predominant in the city, can worship," the priest said. "We don't want to lose those folks."

When he is not in planning meetings, Father Jacques, who is residing in Lafayette, visits his parishioners in Houston, Atlanta and Baton Rouge. He e-mails them and talks to them on the telephone. "Sometimes all they want to do is hear your voice," he said.

When Archbishop Hughes meets with his priests, the stories flow naturally. Father William Blank, pastor of St. Julian Eymard in New Orleans, told of his experience at an evacuee center in Jackson, Miss., where there was a need for a church service but no suitable space.

Then someone found a small storage room and children drew pictures of stained-glass windows, which were taped to the walls. A parent built a cross and someone scrounged up a table.

"There was a lady who was moved by the fact that they needed an altar cloth," said Deacon David Warriner, an assistant to Archbishop Hughes. "She had one sheet left in her possession and she donated the sheet for an altar cloth."

That kind of faith and creativity will serve the archdiocese well over the next several months of planning for the future.

"We can't have church the same way -- we have to create something," Father Jacques said. "We have an opportunity to shape the vision for the future. The prophet Jeremiah said he had a vision for a future full of hope. We have to have that vision."

Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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