Unflappable St. Maria Goretti celebrates 50 years
St. Maria Goretti Parish was hailed at its 50th Anniversary Mass as a warm and welcoming community of faith that continues to “anchor” New Orleans East nearly a decade after Hurricane Katrina dealt a one-two punch to the parish plant and adjacent residential neighborhoods.
“A faithful and loving God has walked the journey with this parish for 50 years,” said Archbishop Gregory Aymond, co-celebrant of the Jan. 11 Mass, lauding the palpable “love and respect” among St. Maria Goretti’s parishioners that binds them together as family in both good and bad times.
“Katrina took the lives of a lot of people; Katrina took the homes and buildings within our city,” the archbishop said, “but Katrina did not take your faith. Your faith is alive and well! You have continued to rebuild this community.”
Grew out of mission church
Carved out of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, St. Maria Goretti was established on Jan. 2, 1965, by Archbishop John Cody. Father Edward Gauthier was appointed as its founding pastor.
Before assuming its current location at Crowder Boulevard and Morrison Road in 1975, the parish was headquartered on Edgelake Court and Hayne Boulevard, the latter a two-lane, pothole-laden road linking the lakeside recreational camps of the rural “Little Woods” community. A small clapboard church once belonging to St. James Major Parish in Gentilly – physically dismantled and reconstructed at the Edgelake Court site – had served as a mission church since 1952. Another relocated building – a house donated by the brewmaster of Falstaff – was the parish’s first rectory.
“They built a garage and called it the parish hall,” recalled Msgr. L. Earl Gauthreaux, who arrived at the then remote, heavily wooded parish in 1968 as St. Maria Goretti’s second pastor. Forty-seven years later, Msgr. Gauthreaux continues in that role, making him the longest tenured pastor of a single parish in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
“At the very first homily I gave to the people, I told everybody that I didn’t come here to build buildings; I came here to build a community first – a community of faith – then we would build buildings,” said Msgr. Gauthreaux, speaking during the homily of the Golden Jubilee Mass. His first priorities were to establish a religious education board to oversee the faith formation of all ages, and St. Maria Goretti Playground, now under the direction of NORD.
“(The kids) came out of the woods like termites – there were loads of children out here looking for places to recreate,” Msgr. Gauthreaux said. “We didn’t have anywhere to teach religious education, so I gathered up some portable classrooms from (other parishes).”
In the early 1970s, with his parish bolstered by the extension of I-10 and the resulting building boom in New Orleans East, Msgr. Gauthreaux added Masses, initiated an annual Po-Boy Festival and worked with his parishioners to build a 950-seat church on a 10 1/2-acre plot at the newly created intersection of Crowder and Morrison. The modern-style, fan-shaped church, which also features an adjoining day chapel, hosted its first Mass on April 12, 1975.
“We processed from the old church to the new church with the Blessed Sacrament,” recalled Msgr. Gauthreaux of the five-block walk down Crowder to his new parish hub, noting that construction of a new parish center and rectory enabled his faith community to completely relocate from Edgelake Court at the end of 1980.
“The whole area was flourishing. We had loads of baptisms – a baby was born every day – and loads of weddings and funerals,“ said Msgr. Gauthreaux, recalling the period from 1975 to 2005 in which seven weekend Masses were celebrated.
Hit the ground running
While devastating, Katrina was treated as a temporary wrench in the works by the undaunted pastor and his flock. As Msgr. Gauthreaux’s family members gutted the flood-ravaged church, the priest began phoning parishioners “scattered all over creation.” He hired his parish staff to assist in the cleanup and turned over the church’s blueprints, which had survived the storm on an elevated shelf, to contractors.
Eucharistic Missionary of St. Dominic Louella Pitre and her fellow sisters from Michigan visited thousands of residents, door to door, to assess their needs. The parish center was opened up at no charge to accommodate area civic and religious groups – a courtesy the parish continues to extend to today. St. Maria Goretti also assumed the parish territory of Immaculate Heart of Mary and St. Simon Peter after the storm.
“We became the anchor of New Orleans East,” Msgr. Gauthreaux said. “Our buildings were open to everybody. People came from all over, including Texas. As the church comes back people come back.”
St. Maria Goretti’s first post-Katrina Mass was held just two months after Katrina’s landfall, with congregants sitting on chairs in their gutted church and assisted in the celebration by a generator-powered microphone, a keyboard and guitars. An 11 a.m. Mass was celebrated in the parish center every Sunday until the church – completely rebuilt to its pre-Katrina configuration – reopened on Christmas Eve of 2006.
Wide ministerial reach
Currently numbering about 2,000 registered families and offering a full complement of daily and weekend Masses, the parish continues to thrive a decade after the life-altering storm.
Msgr. Gauthreaux and his parochial vicar, Father Cyril Buyeera, oversee more than a dozen ministries, including the archdiocese’s largest Holy Name Society and an active youth group that visits nursing homes, assists its elders in other parish ministries and raises funds to send rosaries to a Catholic mission in Uganda. A Wellness Ministry, launched after Katrina, offers health screenings and exercise classes including yoga and low-impact classes for seniors.
Another vital ministry is the group “Just Faith,” which forged a partnership with St. Teresa of the Child Jesus Parish in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Parishioner donations, bolstered by proceeds from St. Maria Goretti’s annual Gospel music concert, have funded the purchase of priestly vestments, monstrance and sacred vessels for the Haitian parish.
“We (intentionally) picked the poorest parish in Haiti,” Msgr. Gauthreaux said. “The amazing thing is the people of Goretti suffered a lot with Katrina – so they understand what it’s like to be without the necessities of life for a time,” he said, adding that his parishioners also feed the poor and elderly at St. Jude’s Community Center monthly and provide home-cooked meals to those who receive holy Communion at home.
Ralph Clary, a parishioner since 1968, credits his parish for “changing (his) life around” when he was a young man searching for a church home.
“We love the music and everything that we do here,” said Clary, who sings in the choir – one of two ensembles currently enhancing liturgies at St. Maria Goretti.
“Monsignor (Gauthreaux) is the one who has shepherded us – he loves everybody and he is close to everyone,” Clary added. “He follows what Jesus taught: love your neighbor; treat everyone with kindness. It doesn’t matter who you are, how much money you have or don’t have, or what race you belong to. We’re all one big family.”