Summer WITNESS launched Social Apostolate
Of all Archbishop Philip M. Hannan’s social initiatives, one that has touched and influenced countless generations of New Orleanians has been the Summer WITNESS program.
What began in 1966 as a program of community development and self-help in the Desire Housing Development grew into a Social Apostolate ministry that addressed the needs of children and elderly while building leadership and pastoral formation among seminarians.
Father Jerome Frey, founder and spiritual director of the Community of Jesus Crucified in Lafayette who is now retired and living in Baton Rouge, was on the faculty and the spiritual director at Notre Dame Seminary when Washington Auxiliary Bishop Philip Hannan became the archbishop of New Orleans.
Father Frey, now 87, recalled Archbishop Hannan being inspired to start the program after seeing an article in Time Magazine about Boston seminarians rebelling against Archbishop Richard Cushing – not wanting to work summer camps – as part of their “Academia Program.”
“(The seminarians) wanted to respond to inner-city problems and work there,” he recalled.
Archbishop Hannan asked Father Frey if he was willing to travel to Boston and invite the seminarians there to work with the New Orleans poor.
Start of Summer WITNESS
“He was seizing this opportunity to start the Social Apostolate in the Archdiocese of New Orleans,” Father Frey said. Summer WITNESS was staffed by Notre Dame seminarians with the help of about 20 to 30 seminarians from Boston and another 10 seminarians from the diocesan seminary in Little Rock.
The initial New Orleans program was run by seminarians, Father Frey said. The following year, it expanded to include 80 seminarians, some from Kentucky, Massachusetts and Indiana, and 12 nuns from seven orders. They tutored, counseled and organized recreation programs.
By the third year, there were 28 locations in seven target areas of the city and four in neighboring parishes. Swimming, adult education, sewing, typing, home nursing, leadership training, arts and crafts, cultural trips and senior programs were conducted.
“It was staffed by seminarians and supervised by myself and Sister Barbara Ashy, a Eucharistic Missionary of St. Dominic,” Father Frey said.
“That first summer, we targeted the area called Desire Street community, where the federal government had a big housing project,” Father Frey said. “We wanted to take an apartment to run the program from within. But the police wouldn’t let us. The diocese bought a house – Patterson House – named after a young priest, Roy Patterson, who was ordained at the seminary the year before but had died. It was the birth house of the WITNESS Program.”
Former seminarian Mike Early Jr. lived at Patterson House for a semester. He called the summer program a “visionary initiative” at a time of societal change. “It showed Archbishop Hannan for what he is most – a pastor.”
Father Frey said the program was born out of racial tensions in New Orleans and nationwide.
“It was the year following race riots in California,” he said, “and word was out that New Orleans was next to be hit with race riots. LBJ (President Lyndon Johnson) poured into New Orleans as much money as needed to forestall outbursts of violence in New Orleans.”
Father Frey remembered the archdiocese receiving some funds, and Summer WITNESS workers attended workshops sponsored by the federal government.
“The classes were the different activities we could engage in to help different people, to soften racial tension,” he said.
The seminarians and police initially worked together. Youth participants went on hikes and attended Bible classes.
“Mostly, it was working with youth,” Father Frey said, ranging in age from 10 to late 20s. “It was a very ambitious project. It was one of the most energetic social programs that I’ve been involved in. Every weekend there were murders in the (housing) projects. Violence was very close to the surface at the time. And this program, with all these seminarians working with youth to take them to different places, different athletic activities and teaming up with police that had been working with us, helped.”
The Boston seminarians had Father Frey at New Orleans City Hall trying to convince the council to clean up the abandoned cars from Hurricane Betsy still on streets in the projects.
“At the end of the summer program, the seminarians pushed the City Council to adopt a public park for the people in the projects,” Father Frey said. “It was developed through the public parks commission.”
Father Frey recollected how the seminarians, upon Archbishop Hannan’s urging, opened Notre Dame’s swimming pool to the camp, a daring move since city pools were closed so they didn’t have to be integrated. Archbishop Hannan’s directive was to start a Social Apostolate that would become the official apostolate for the archdiocese. This would be the kick off.
Concern for social issues
Father Frey said Archbishop Hannan saw a need for the church to do something for the needy.
“My impression was his sensitivity at hitting the needs that hurt the worst,” he said. “He was extremely sensitive to the poor and the depressed. He reached out to people.”
At the same time, he said Archbishop Hannan was concerned with the development of men in the seminary. He became involved in their spiritual formation and was close to the faculty.
“As spiritual director, I thought Hannan was concerned with their maturity to be on par with their academic development,” Father Frey said. “Archbishop Hannan came in with a real interest in the students and their spiritual formation.”
“He really provided leadership and gradually developed support,” Father Frey said. “(Archbishop) Hannan came in with a great big heart, very energetic and a concern for the needy and began immediately to be reactive in response to the needs but not overdoing it or alienating people. He had a gentle way but a very apostolic way. People reacted, from what I could see, took him to heart and really responded favorably to him.”
“Archbishop (Joseph) Rummel was a legend, but he represented the passing of the old church,” Father Frey said. “I think Hannan came in and picked up where Rummel left off, but Hannan initiated these active programs in the diocese without creating any kind of opposition. He began to develop his new ministries especially in response to the social apostolate that didn’t conflict with diocese.”