Msgr. Duke always just a phone call away

Msgr. Charles Duke, the founding pastor of St. Ann Church in Metairie, was remembered as the ever-present shepherd and no-nonsense administrator who tenaciously offered Mass and the sacraments through the year of his death at age 97.

Msgr. Duke, who served under six archbishops and was before his passing the oldest priest in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, died June 23 at his home located a block from his beloved St. Ann Church and Shrine. He was a priest for 69 years.

“Whatever he said he’d done as a pastor or a priest or an administrator, you could take it to the bank. He was a man of few words, but when he said it, you believed it,” said Father H.L. Brignac during the homily of Msgr. Duke’s June 28 Funeral Mass.

Witness to faith

Father Brignac, who admittedhe initially was nervous about being assigned to St. Ann in 1996 to serve under the notoriously direct Msgr. Duke, said the Gospel account of Martha’s reaction to the death of Lazarus – and the comfort extended to her by Jesus – underscores a belief that Msgr. Duke heartily embraced: God is with us always, in life and in death.

“The death of a loved one causes a great deal of pain and anxiety, but if you really understand what the Scripture said, whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord – and surely Msgr. Duke belonged to the Lord in many, many ways,” Father Brignac said. “There was not a time when I was with him that he was not in this very church saying the rosary. He had a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

A poignant moment in the priests’ friendship had occurred just a few weeks ago, when Father Brignac joined Msgr. Duke in his tiny living room for a Mass celebrating the elder priest’s ordination. When Father Brignac leaned down to offer the sign of peace, the wheelchair-bound Msgr. Duke kissed the top of his hand.

“I’ll never forget that,” said Father Brignac, his voice wavering. “I love that man from the bottom of my heart because he saved my life and continues to save my life by his devotion to the priesthood and to the Archdiocese of New Orleans.”

Pennsylvania transplant

Born in Philadelphia on April 12, 1919, Msgr. Duke completed his studies in philosophy and theology at Marist College in Washington, D.C. He was ordained into the Society of Mary as a Marist priest for the Marist community in 1947, spendingfive years in San Francisco and six years in Georgia before coming to Louisiana in 1958 to help revive the Marist-staffed St. Julian Eymard Parish in Algiers.

Msgr. Duke transferred to the diocesan priesthood in 1968, firstserving as administrator of St. Nicholas of Myra in New Orleans. His pastorates were at St. Joseph-St. Julian Eymard and at St. Ann, the latter steered by Msgr. Duke from its 1971 establishment through his retirement in 1996.

“He helped everybody. If you had somebody at the hospital at 2 o’clock in the morning, he would go – all you had to do was call him and he was there,” said St. Ann parishioner Joan Worley, recalling how the newly arrived Msgr. Duke visited every household in the parish and came to know most of his flock by name.

In addition to establishing St. Ann School with the Salesian Sisters, Msgr. Duke was hands-on when it came to raising his parish plant from a sinking field off Transcontinental Drive.

“There was nothing here but an empty lot. He filled it in; he graded it, put the mud in. He was always here,” said Worley, noting that Msgr. Duke exercised the same care in picking out the subjects of his church’s stained-glass panels, including the central, wall-size one depicting the Holy Trinity.

“He had a big saying: ‘Everything you do is building up the church,’” said Worley, sharing a daily habit that might have contributed to her late pastor’s longevity.

“He loved eating avocado and yellow mustard mashed together,” she said.

An on-call shepherd

St. Ann’s Pam Maratea, a registered nurse, recalls telling Msgr. Duke once that Lakeside Hospital’s extraordinary minister of holy Communion was dismayed that a priest wasn’t always available to baptize at-risk newborns.

“I made that one comment to Father Duke, and that was it!” Maratea said. “Every time I saw that eucharistic minister she would thank me, because no matter what time it was, Msgr. Duke was there, baptizing those babies. At East Jefferson (Hospital) he was there four times a day, ministering to the sick. He really had a calling. He really cared.”

Msgr. Duke’s house-call approach to parish priesthood also extended to celebrating Masses and leading rosaries at the homes of the sick and dying. In retirement, when advancing age prevented him from driving himself to celebrate Mass (St. Ann’s weekday morning Mass and regular Masses at St. Patrick in the CBD and St. Matthew the Apostle in River Ridge), a trio of volunteers would ferry Msgr. Duke to each church, delivering him an hour early so he could hear confessions.

Msgr. Duke celebrated his final Mass last February at his Metairie home, presiding behind a simple wooden altar located in a spot typically occupied by a TV.

Revolving door of love

In the Words of Remembrance, nephew Brian Duke thanked Msgr. Duke’s local “Family of Faith” for welcoming his transplanted uncle from the time of his arrival nearly 60 years ago.

“It meant a lot to us to know he was supported,” said Duke, recalling Msgr. Duke’s final birthday last April, spent in the hospital. As the two relatives were discussing end-of-life issues, Duke said the melancholy in the hospital  room lifted when the door began opening.

“Without an organized effort, one by one that afternoon, on the anniversary of (Msgr. Duke’s) birth, people came to that room and talked to him, assured him of the strength given by God and Mary, assured him of their commitment to be with him,” Duke said. “People he cared for at the most difficult times of their lives were telling him of God’s good works, of his accomplishments, of his help through troubled times, telling him he saved their lives. As one visitor said to him, ‘You brought me to Jesus!’”

Duke said well-known aspects of Msgr. Duke’s priesthood included his gift of communication – forged as one of 10 children; his special love for children – illustrated by his insistence on personally handing out report cards and the many visits of St. Ann alumni to his Lemon Street home; his dedication to the priest as “shepherd”; and his devotion to prayer, especially the powerful the intercession of Mary and St. Ann. To celebrate the latter devotion, Duke led mourners in the Hail Mary, followed by his uncle’s favorite prayer, the Memorare.

“His communication had its core strength in the Word – the Word made flesh,” Duke said. “He spoke as a shepherd, the defender of his flock, the one who provided for their needs, who nourished this flock, making sure they knew right from wrong and had a foundation in the faith. The source was the message of Jesus, communicated with much love.”

Mentor to archbishop

Before the final blessing, Archbishop Gregory Aymond thanked Msgr. Duke for teaching him valuable lessons on priestly ministry over the 15-year period in which the archbishop traveled to St. Ann to celebrate Mass.

“What came through so loudly was his love for Christ, his dependence upon Mary and his love for you, the people of God,” the archbishop said, thanking Msgr. Duke’s many caregivers, some of whom were available around the clock in his final weeks.

Archbishop Aymond said Msgr. Duke epitomized the kind of priest Pope Francis desired: a servant leader so devoted to his people that he took on “the smell of the sheep.”

“Charlie Duke was always among the flock – always here, always present, always available, with a special love for the sick and for children,” Archbishop Aymond said. “He always said that he wanted to be totally for the church, as Mary was.

“Charlie, you have been an exemplary priest, and we are grateful to you to saying yes to priesthood and we’re grateful to God for calling you,” the archbishop said, holding up Msgr. Duke’s chalice and urging Catholics to pray for vocations. “Many will miss you, but we hope that you know as you stand before the Lord and share in his kingdom that you have touched thousands upon thousands upon thousands of hearts.”

Beth Donze can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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