Faith endures at St. Mary of the Angels
Written by Eileen Connelly, OSU
As parishioners at St. Mary of the Angels (SMA) in New Orleans’ Upper Ninth Ward gather for Mass each Sunday Morning, there is an overwhelming sense of joy and gratitude for the goodness of God and the presence of the Franciscan friars who have served the faith community there for nearly 100 years. Choruses of “Amen” and “Hallelujah” ring out in response to stirring homilies and members of the congregation raise their voices in thanks and praise, led by SMA’s Gospel Choir.
That faithful presence of the friars dates to 1925, when then-Archbishop John W. Shaw invited the Franciscans from Cincinnati to assume care of a proposed parish behind Claiborne Street in downtown New Orleans and Our Lady of Good Harbor in Buras, Louisiana. The first Mass at the new parish was celebrated in a three-room house serving as a temporary church on Aug. 2, 1925, the feast of Our Lady of the Angels. Over the years, the friars’ leadership and the faith and dedication of parishioners have seen the parish through cultural and economic changes, with SMA continuing to be a beacon of hope and stability in the neighborhood.
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, and floodwaters engulfed the Ninth Ward, Fr. Bart Pax, pastor, and fellow friars sheltered nearly 100 neighbors in the parish school building. Months after the water receded, while he was also quietly waging a battle against cancer, Fr. Bart kept a one-man vigil in the parish, coordinating the rebuilding and reopening of SMA.
“Because of the friars that came before us, there is a deep respect for the Franciscans here, along with a strong sense of family and a spirit of cooperation that continues to be nurtured,” said Fr. Joe Hund, the current pastor at SMA.
The SMA community responded to Hurricane Ida’s aftermath with that same spirit of family, cooperation, and service to others in late August of 2021. The friars chose to remain during the storm, primarily to be of service to their neighbors by opening the school and parking lot for shelter and distribution of emergency goods, such as water, food, ice, blue tarps, cleaning supplies, and baby items. Parishioners worked especially hard to clear debris from church grounds and assist their neighbors with cleanup and repair. “The parish always endures,” Fr. Joe has said on more than one occasion and this was no exception.
Members of SMA agree. Every weekday morning, Lucille Carr McCormick walks six blocks to SMA for Mass or a Communion service. A longtime parishioner, she said, “I just can’t get enough of my faith. The friars are so caring and sharing,” she said. “All of the priests and brothers over the years have made our lives so beautiful through their faith and dedication. I went to school here and my sons were altar boys. God is so good, and it’s by His grace and mercy that we are still here.”
Derek Rankins has been a member of SMA since he was in the fourth grade, and along with his wife, Keiaria, and infant daughter, Paz, considers the parish to be “a second home.” He is involved in the parish in a variety of ways, including serving as resident sacristan, as an altar server, helping to plan the centennial celebration, and “supporting Fr. Joe and the other friars in their endeavors.”
The Franciscans have been “a light of justice” in a neighborhood where the people are proud, but many are struggling and still recovering from Hurricane Ida, Derek added. While it is a neighborhood in transition, with some additional homes under construction and new families moving in, the Upper Ninth Ward is an underserved community and has the lowest average income in the City of New Orleans. The friars’ collaboration with various community and social organizations, including Catholic Charities Senior Food Distribution, College Track Program for high school students, and Together New Orleans, speaks to their commitment to justice and the Franciscan spirit of humble and steadfast service to others.
“The friars have brought life to our parish and the neighborhood,” said Derek. “Because of them, we don’t feel like we’re in this on our own. They are willing to be part of the journey and of life and faith with us and that means everything.”
“The people here are very welcoming and very involved,” said Fr. Joe, pastor for the past six years. “I give the credit for that to the pastors who came before me. They really promoted lay ministry and leadership. For me, the most rewarding part of serving here is the people themselves; their love for their faith and the Franciscans. They have really built up and sustained this church. The African-American expression of liturgy here is awesome and reflects parishioners’ deep spirituality and love for God. There is a family spirit here.”
“The parishioners are good, faith-filled, and genuine,” added Fr. Mike Haney, associate pastor. “One of the things I’ve perceived is the pride among the people in the parish. It’s displayed in their conversations, the distance they come for Mass. And their care and concern for others are evident in their efforts to organize senior activities, food distribution for those in need, and outreach to the sick. What’s happening here fits right in with being Franciscan.”
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