St. Francis of Assisi: 125 years of warm welcome
Its interior boasts the vertical splendor of a Gothic cathedral – the soaring stained-glass windows, the vaulted wooden ceiling, the ribbed plasterwork – but St. Francis of Assisi Church still manages to wrap Stan Ellington in a hug whenever he enters the doors of 631 State St.
“I love the feel of the parish,” said Ellington, an extraordinary minister of holy Communion who came to the parish in 1990. “It’s a friendly, warm, non-pretentious church that I think embraces and welcomes people. There’s a great focus on love – it’s just a great place for families.”
St. Francis of Assisi will celebrate 125 years of welcoming Uptown-based Catholics at a special Mass celebrated by Archbishop Gregory Aymond on Oct. 4 at 11:30 a.m. All former and current parishioners, as well as alumni of the former elementary school, are welcome.
“It’s such a compact neighborhood surrounding the church,” said Father Michael Schneller, who became St. Francis of Assisi’s 10th pastor in July 2013. “I think that has created a special closeness in the parish over 125 years.”
Parish growing again
The parish’s first Mass was celebrated Nov. 23, 1890, by Father Adrian Van der Heyde. The Sisters of Christian Charity arrived to operate the school in 1891, commuting to St. Francis of Assisi by streetcar from their Constance Street convent in St. Henry Parish. Thirty-eight pupils attended the first day of school, with classes held in two rooms of the still-standing parish rectory.
By 1990 – following decades of explosive population growth in New Orleans – the parish had only 600 to 700 people attending Sunday Masses. The out-migration also led to the closing of the school in 1996.
“I think because we do not have a Catholic school it’s a challenge to develop that sense of community, but we are meeting that challenge,” said Father Schneller, noting that parish enrollment is on the uptick again, with participation strong and growing among the 1,480 registered families. Located on the “Sliver by the River,” the church and surrounding neighborhood did not flood during Hurricane Katrina, he added.
Father Schneller pointed to other signs of parish resurgence: Last year’s school of religion enrollment of 120 children; a confirmation class of 40 high school juniors; and a fledgling youth group.
“We have a very active RCIA program – nine people last year and six this year, “ Father Schneller said, “which is pretty good considering the small geographical size of our parish.”
At the 9:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday, children ages 3 to 7 are dismissed from the church to attend a Children’s Liturgy of the Word lesson held in the former chapel of the Sisters of Christian Charity, rejoining their parents after the homily.
Other family-friendly activities include a children’s Nativity dramatization, an Easter egg hunt after the 9:30 a.m. Mass on Easter Sunday, and a “Thoth Sunday” Mass featuring jazz-style music and a second-line recession to the parade’s Magazine Street viewing area, led by children bearing trinkets and beads.
School tenant adds vitality
For the last three years, St. Francis of Assisi’s 1963-built school building has been leased to the Lycée Francais de la Nouvelle-Orléans.
“Some of our parishioners have students at the school – we have a very good relationship with (it),” Father Schneller said, noting that the school used the church for its 2015 kindergarten advancement ceremony, and that he is a regular guest at faculty meet-and-greets and other school activities.
Among the parish’s many ministries are the “Matthew 25” Ministry to the Poor, in which a core group of about 15 parishioners distributes groceries to 50 families every first Saturday, adopts the same 50 families through an “Angel Tree” program during Advent, and responds as much as possible to requests for rent and utility assistance.
To adopt chapel in Haiti
In honor of the 125th anniversary, the church’s social outreach will expand to include partnering with Catholic Relief Services and Mary Queen of Peace Parish in Mandeville to rebuild St. Francis Xavier Chapel in Giles, Haiti. The 1889 chapel was completely destroyed in the 2010 earthquake but still holds Mass under and religious education classes under a tent. St. Francis of Assisi parishioners were touched when they learned that Haitian Catholics must walk from a half-hour to two hours to attend classes and Masses at the destroyed chapel, whose sanctuary steps are the only feature to survive the earthquake.
“What’s interesting about this is that this chapel was built one year before we were founded – 1889,” Father Schneller said.
A “ministry” unto itself is maintaining 91-year-old St. Francis of Assisi Church, which celebrates five weekday Masses and three weekend Masses, including the choir-supported 11:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday. The church, which features 16 German-made stained glass windows depicting scenes from the lives of St. Francis, the Blessed Mother and the Eucharist, remains a popular venue for the sacrament of marriage.
“In addition to the architectural beauty of the church, it’s a comfortable size for a wedding,” Father Schneller notes. “It seats about 500 – so it’s not immense. Most weddings, at most, have 200 to 300 people.”
Ellington said even strangers feel embraced at Masses at his parish – partly because his pastor makes a point of greeting people inside church before the vesting deadline.
“People look forward to coming to Mass here – it’s not just an obligation to get out of the way,” Ellington said.
Father Schneller sees the same participatory spirit every time he celebrates Mass.
“Their singing is good! You don’t always find that,” he said. “I know they like to sing, because I can hear it!”
125th Anniversary Events
The following events will be held in conjunction with St. Francis of Assisi Parish’s 125th anniversary:
➤ Archbishop Gregory Aymond will preside at the 125th Anniversary Mass Oct. 4 at 11:30 a.m. A reception will follow in the school cafeteria. (The archbishop has given permission to celebrate the Memorial of St. Francis of Assisi in place of the regular Sunday liturgy and Scriptures).
➤ The church will host an inaugural “Festival of Lessons and Carols,” featuring Advent-related Scripture readings, prayers and music, Dec. 13 at 4 p.m. in the church.
➤ The church will host a Lenten Tenebrae Service, featuring Scripture readings, prayers and music, March 13 at 3 p.m.
➤ A reunion of St. Francis of Assisi Elementary School alumni will be held April 16. The event will begin with Mass at 4 p.m., followed by a reception in the school cafeteria.
➤ Franciscan Friar Johnpaul Cafiero, of Holy Evangelists Friary in Chicago, will present an Easter mission entitled “Easter Peace: Reflections on the Peace Prayer,” April 23-26.
For more information on any of these events, call the parish office at 891-4479 or visit www.stfrancisuptown.com.