Our Lady of Grace celebrates its history
In song, dance and prayer the parishioners of Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Reserve celebrated a Mass June 24 to honor the parish’s 75th anniversary. The Mass culminated a weekend-long observance that included a social and dance, a family day picnic, new bell tower dedication and time capsule burial.
The Mass’ opening song “We’ve Come This Far By Faith” reflected the history of Our Lady of Grace, sprouting as an African-American Catholic Parish from St. Peter in 1937.
“This is our 75th anniversary, and we have a lot to be proud of, a lot to be thankful for and we are blessed,” choir director Shelly Dents said.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond, the Mass celebrant, commended the Josephite community and the Sisters of the Holy Family for serving the parish from its inception and regaled parishioners with special events in their history.
He recounted the efforts of Father Jean Eyraud, pastor at St. Peter Church in Reserve, who petitioned Archbishop Joseph Rummel for a church for African-American Catholics, and the two anonymous donors from New York who donated money to build it.
“As we recall the jubilee, it really was the dream of others, a dream God himself placed in others’ hearts and minds,” he said to start the parish. He also acknowledged the hard work, prayer and dedication of the people of Our Lady of Grace – amid segregation – for persevering to get the church built and dedicated by Archbishop Rummel on June 13, 1937.
“I wonder, church, is there anyone here who can take us back to that founding,” Archbishop Aymond asked.
Seven people stood, and the archbishop thanked them for their service and witness of the Catholic faith.
Knights of Peter Claver member George Bourgeois Jr., 82, was among those who stood. His seven children attended Our Lady of Grace School, and his six sons were altar servers. As a boy, he remembered being relegated to the last few pews at predominantly white St. Peter and St. Joan of Arc parish churches.
Fellow parishioners also remembered the segregation.
“They didn’t want us in St. Peter,” parishioner Walter Keller, 87, said about attending St. Peter Church in Reserve as a black person.
“They let us in, but only so far,” his wife Isabella Keller, 85, added.
Racial segregation was a federal policy at the time of the church’s founding, as discovered by parishioner Mary Mitchell (born in 1943) when compiling the parish history from parish records, archives at the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the Josephites and Xavier and Loyola universities.
“Slavery was abolished but Jim Crow (segregation laws) continued,” she said. “It was separate but totally unequal. My mom and grandparents were still relegated to those back pews.”
Her great grandparents were the last generation of slaves on the Belle Pointe Plantation, situated where the church now stands.
Black leaders in the River Parishes wanted a better education for their children than they had and worked with Father Eyraud to make it happen. In 1931, former New Orleans Archbishop John Shaw and Mother Katharine Drexel, the foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, opened St. Catherine Parochial Mission School for African-American children on the St. Peter parish site in Reserve.
Mitchell said Father Eyraud bid $700 on a former public school building and had it moved to the parish. She said six benevolent societies donated $625 to have it rebuilt on site. It was the first Catholic school for black children between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Mitchell learned.
The growth of the school necessitated a separate church be built for African Americans. “Those two back rows couldn’t hold all the people ... and blacks were supporting the church just as whites,” Mitchell said.
After Archbishop Shaw’s death in 1934, Archbishop Joseph Rummel approved the building of a new church and contacted Josephite Superior General Louis Pastorelli, whose order provided ministry to African Americans, to send a spiritual leader to Reserve. Josephite Father Roderique Auclair was appointed the first pastor of Our Lady of Grace in 1936. The church, rectory and garage were completed in 1937 and dedicated with a Mass on Palm Sunday, March 21, 1937, by Archbishop Rummel. The school was moved to the new church site in September 1937 and renamed Our Lady of Grace.
Keller teared up when he recalled “working for almost nothing” with his father and others to build that first church, then the school’s expansion into a high school in 1951 and its rebuilding with the convent after a 1957 fire. He also helped build the parish’s new, brick church, dedicated by Archbishop Francis Schulte in September 1992.
“It means a lot to me,” Keller said about being a founding parishioner. “I think about the other guys that were here and are now gone.”
Ties run deep
The school was originally staffed with students from Mother Katharine Drexel’s Xavier University. Then, Sisters of the Holy Family followed from 1942-96.
Even though they no longer teach at Our Lady of Grace, several Sisters of the Holy Family attended the anniversary weekend and reminisced with former students. Among them: Sister John Mary Jackson, who taught from 1968-69 and was principal from 1974-77; Sister Cornelia Hall; and former principal Sister Frances Cabrini Turnbull. Sister John Mary and Sister Cornelia are River Parish natives.
“The friendliness of people and service to others (made Our Lady of Grace special),” Sister John Mary said.
Josephite Father Roderick Coates, the current pastor, told parishioners at Mass that they are beacons of hope and light of the Catholic faith to others.
“You have been great in your service to God and service to each other,” Father Roderick Coates said.
Mitchell couldn’t be prouder of the legacy of Our Lady of Grace.
“Every day I thank God for what we have,” Mitchell said. “When you think of Mother Katharine Drexel, who knew nothing about this area but sent nuns and her superior students to teach these colored children ... she didn’t know she would be a saint. Then Henriette Delille, her sisters from the Holy Family came in 1942 and took over. Now she is venerable. Now Monsignor Eyraud is in a category of servant of God. Their road to heaven passed through Our Lady of Grace. I thank God for being a part of the parish.”