Grieving community bids farewell
In his nearly three decades as pastor of St. Peter Claver Parish, Edmundite Father Michael Jacques had energized his church and neighborhood.
So it was no surprise, then, that more than 550 people squeezed inside the church on St. Philip Street while another 300 watched his funeral Mass June 15 on a closed-circuit feed in the school cafeteria.
Hundreds more, including Archbishop Gregory Aymond, followed his horse-drawn casket as it processed for a final time through the neighborhood after the funeral Mass.
The beloved pastor, who transformed a sleepy, almost forgotten parish into one of the most vibrant in the United States, died June 7 at age 64 of complications from heart surgery, but not before inspiring legions of followers with a zeal for curing social ills using the principles of Catholic social teaching and faith-based organizing.
To hear his parishioners and staff members talk, Father Jacques wasn’t about to rest on his laurels.
“We’re about to do something big,” he told Alena Boucree, director of religious education, as he prepared for a three-day “blue-sky” planning session that would have begun last week.
Boucree never found out what Father Jacques’ next “big” idea for the 2,600-family parish was, but she’s sure it would have taken flesh, just as the church and parish came back from Hurricane Katrina new and improved through the lay involvement and ownership he had inspired.
Father Jacques also was instrumental in rebuilding neighborhoods after Katrina, forming the UJAMAA community development corporation and later partnering with Providence Community Housing to replace and rebuild the Lafitte Housing Development.
“He pulled things out of you that you didn’t know you had,” said Don Boucree, Alena’s husband, who once served as principal of St. Peter Claver School and was a member of the pastoral council. “He had such great leadership qualities. Now the question is, what do we do now? All the training he gave us is the test.”
Edmundite Father David Theroux, whom Father Jacques succeeded as St. Peter Claver pastor in 1985 after having served as a parochial vicar for one year, addressed the unspoken fears of many inside the church.
What will they do without him?
“Church, the message I have this day is the message that Michael wanted preached in this church,” he said. “Church, it’s going to be all right. Though we’re tested by this moment of sorrow, it’s going to be all right.”
Father Theroux said he had talked many times with Father Jacques about the pressures of maintaining dozens of parish ministries, especially on a person whose family members had a history of dying prematurely from heart problems.
“He never envisioned for himself a long life – this I know,” Father Theroux said. “He chose to live it as fully as he could in the time that he had.”
Typically, Father Theroux would advise Father Jacques that he needed to “slow down” to pace himself.
“Michael would always tell me he was going to live as fully and as much as he could now and leave the rest in the hands of God,” Father Theroux said. “Church, we do not know the day or the hour. We are called to holiness and to preserve with our integrity this life until that time when we are taken to the Lord. Father Michael showed us the truth of Christian living.
“We need to learn from Michael how precious life is and understand that the time we are given is to work on the building of our character and faith as well as building the kingdom of God on earth.”
Father Jacques had just returned to New Orleans from celebrating the funeral Mass of his brother Roger June 4 in New York when he checked into the hospital with chest pains on June 6. Newly ordained Father Daniel Green drove him to the hospital.
Doctors inserted a stent in one of his arteries, but Father Jacques developed complications and died about 2 a.m. June 7. Father Green had anointed him, and Auxiliary Bishop Shelton Fabre was also with him when he died.
“He was a mentor and a friend and role model,” Father Green said. “He taught me what it means to love your parish, to love your people and to really pour out everything for them.”
St. Peter Claver was considered such a vibrant inner-city parish that Paul Wilkes, author of “Excellent Catholic Parishes,” profiled it as one of the top eight parishes in the United States.
“One could call it a Catholic village,” Wilkes wrote. “It is a total, organic, holy place, not just where people gather together, but where life can be lived from within.”
Sounds of gunfire
In 1993, Father Jacques wrote an op-ed for the Clarion Herald in which he noted, “Almost every night, I go to sleep to the sound of random gunfire in my neighborhood. Around the corner from St. Peter Claver Church, prostitutes openly conduct their business in bars. We have several motels in the area that are little more then camouflaged brothels.”
Because of those social ills affecting his parish, Father Jacques teamed up with All Congregations Together to hold city leaders and police officials accountable.
He invested parish funds heavily into the training of lay leaders, and, as a result, a multitude of ministries emerged. St. Peter Claver Church is filled to capacity every Sunday.
“People believe change is taking place,” Father Jacques said. “We are here, and we won’t stop this fight.”
Father Jacques entered the Society of St. Edmund after graduating from high school, spending 14 years as a religious brother at the Edmundites’ seminary in Mystic, Conn.
He was sent to Trinity College and St. Michael’s College in Burlington, Vt., to earn his degree in social work and then was assigned as director of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Mobile, specializing in adolescent counseling.
After discerning a call to celebrate Mass and administer the sacraments, he entered the Edmundites’ Toronto seminary and was ordained to the priesthood in 1982. He became pastor of St. Peter Claver in 1985, joining the local influx of Edmundites that also ministered at St. Philip the Apostle and St. Joseph the Worker parishes, and established Bishop Perry Middle School.
Father Michael is survived by his brother Norris, his wife and numerous nephews and nieces.