A rebirth at Blessed Seelos (St. Vincent de Paul)
When it was dedicated on April 24, 1866, St. Vincent de Paul Church in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans was the third-oldest Catholic church in the City of New Orleans, behind only St. Louis Cathedral and St. Patrick.
Over the decades, the church at 3037 Dauphine St. has weathered hurricanes, the exodus of much of the white population to the suburbs and a major fire in 2003 that nearly destroyed the stunning red brick structure.
But after nearly 150 years, the church building – now home to Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos Parish – is thriving with energy and new life, said Father José Lavastida, pastor since 2013.
The parish, established in 1838, kicked off the 150-year celebration of the church building Saturday with a gala at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts.
150th events coming
Two other major events will be held in 2016 to mark the sesquicentennial: a Mass of Thanksgiving celebrated by Archbishop Gregory Aymond on April 23 at 4 p.m., and the opening of a time capsule on Nov. 12, which was lowered into the ground outside the church in 1966 and, according to parish archives, contains documents placed inside a model of an Apollo spaceship. The time capsule is covered by an engraved, circular piece of granite.
“We have been a worshipping community here since 1838,” Father Lavastida said of the diverse parish, which has about 500 registered families, including a large Hispanic presence, and also serves the needs of the St. Gerard deaf community.
Father Pedro Nunez has celebrated a regular noon Spanish Mass every Sunday since 1995, which attracts a large following. The parish has two chapters of The Neo-Catechumenal Way. A lay movement called Evangelization, Liberation and Integrity, which started in Mexico, offers spiritual nourishment to Hispanic Catholics.
And because the Bywater has become a red-hot real estate market, with dozens of shotgun homes being renovated, the parish is seeing a revival.
“A lot of young couples are beginning to come to Mass here,” Father Lavastida said. “We’re getting our share of baptisms.”
The church, built for mostly French Catholics at the time, was constructed under the pastorate of Father Etienne Foltier. It has a mix of both French and German stained-glass windows.
Rising from fire of 2003
Lost in the fire of 2003 – which started from a lit candle in an area near the main altar – were two priceless murals executed by Italian painter and sculptor Achille Peretti. Above the main altar was the Lamb of God, and hanging on the ceiling over the main body of the church was the Apotheosis of St. Vincent de Paul. The fire, which traveled to the ceiling and then across the nave, destroyed both.
Six or eight side panels done by Peretti were salvaged but have been placed in storage.
“To repair each of them would be about $30,000 to $40,000,” Father Lavastida said.
The altar of sacrifice and the reredos behind the altar came from Sts. Peter and Paul Church, which had closed as a result of decisions made during the Catholic Life: 2000 strategic planning process.
The only part of the original altar that was saved was the terra cotta sculpture of the Last Supper, which was painted white.
Place of faith formation
Bonnie Pouyadou, whose mother and grandmother attended St. Vincent de Paul, said the church where she was baptized and made all of her sacraments holds a special place in her heart. Pouyadou is organizing the 150th anniversary gala activities.
“This church is the foundation of my faith,” she said. “Of all the church buildings I have been in, this is where I found my faith.”
The parish has prepared a hardbound history of the church and parish, and it will be available for $45 by calling the parish office at 943-5566. Father Lavastida said he hopes to have exterior waterproofing and interior painting of the church done before the anniversary Mass in April.