Msgr. Ray Hebert took time to make a difference
In his decades serving as a pastor and as vicar for clergy in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Msgr. Ray Hebert, who died Jan. 16 at 85 at West Jefferson Hospital, was known for his gentle demeanor and his willingness to listen carefully with an open heart.
Although he was one of the most respected priests in the archdiocese, his loving spirit did not shield him from the cross – having to bear the weight of false sexual abuse accusations lodged against him by former residents of Madonna Manor in Marrero.
Protesting from the beginning that the 50-year-old allegations were false, Msgr. Hebert filed a defamation suit against his accusers and worked feverishly in his retirement to have the accusations publicly withdrawn.
Forgiveness shined through
When the last of his accusers finally recanted in 2010, Msgr. Hebert could have pressed for civil damages, but instead he turned the other cheek.
“Msgr. Hebert said he would withdraw his lawsuit if the man made a public retraction that was published in the newspaper,” former Archbishop Alfred Hughes said following Msgr. Hebert’s funeral Mass Jan. 20 at Immaculate Conception Church in Marrero. “He eventually did that, and then Ray withdrew the lawsuit.
“In all of this, he suffered greatly, but he did so with dignity and confident faith in the Lord and the church. He was exemplary in his priestly disposition.”
A native of Patterson, Msgr. Hebert attended St. Charles Borromeo School in Destrehan and then went to St. Joseph Seminary for high school. He attended Notre Dame Seminary from 1946-52 and was ordained to the priesthood on May 19, 1952 by Auxiliary Bishop L. Abel Caillouet.
His first assignment was as parochial vicar at St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in New Orleans. In a 2013 interview with the Clarion Herald, Marjorie Hill Barth of Anaheim, Calif., described how then-Father Hebert brought her into the church in 1953 with catechism lessons at the church on his lunch hour and later witnessed her marriage.
Just before Msgr. Hebert celebrated his 59th anniversary of priestly ordination in 2011, Barth wrote Msgr. Hebert a long letter describing how his kindness had attracted her to the Catholic faith. Barth was selected Catholic Woman of the Year by her parish.
A touching letter
“I told everyone, ‘I’m not going to preach a homily at all – I’m going to have that letter read,’” Msgr. Hebert said in an interview with the Clarion Herald. “I didn’t know whether I had done all those wonderful things.”
“I knew it was hard for him to fit me in, but he took a poor, uneducated girl and helped me learn about Jesus,” Barth said. “I want to thank him for what he did for me as a young priest. He opened up the Lord to me and made it possible for me to become a Christian.”
Msgr. Hebert also served as a parochial vicar at St. Theresa of the Child Jesus and St. Rose of Lima in New Orleans. His first pastorate was at Our Lady of Good Counsel in New Orleans, and he went on to serve as pastor of St. Edward the Confessor and Our Lady of Divine Providence in Metairie and Immaculate Conception in Marrero.
Father Sal Galvez was ordained in 1987 and worked as a parochial vicar under Msgr. Hebert for 10 years at Immaculate Conception, greatly building up the Hispanic Catholic community there. Msgr. Hebert continued serving as Father Galvez’s spiritual director.
“Ray was really the best priest you could ever meet,” Father Galvez said. “You never heard anyone complain about him in any way. He was wise, prudent and humble, and he was a very good administrator.”
Father Galvez said when Msgr. Hebert was pastor at St. Edward, a Hispanic family with several children in the school feared the children might have to leave the school when their father lost his job.
“Ray told him, ‘Keep the kids in school. If you have problems, I will help you,’” Father Galvez said. “Those people followed Msgr. Hebert everywhere.”
Msgr. Hebert wasn’t a pastor to hold a lot of meetings because he did things a different way. Every day, the priests gathered for lunch, discussed what was going on and then said their prayers together.
When the Hispanic community was looking for a home in the 1980s, Msgr. Hebert invited them to come to Immaculate Conception. The first Mass in Spanish attracted about 40 people. In 1993, for the archdiocesan bicentennial celebration, 29 bishops attended a Spanish Mass at Immaculate Conception.
Msgr. Hebert also served on the Metropolitan Tribunal, was executive director of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, priest personnel director and vicar for clergy.
In 2002, he and then-Auxiliary Bishop Roger Morin oversaw an extensive review of all clergy files going back 50 years to see if there were any allegations of sexual abuse.
The review brought forth 20 cases that were submitted to the independent review board, headed by former Attorney General William Guste. Eight cases were judged not to be credible, and of the remaining 12, 10 involved priests and two involved permanent deacons.
Father Pat Williams, vicar general, who delivered the homily at Msgr. Hebert’s funeral, recalled him “as a very gentle pastor, always willing to listen to people. He was instrumental in helping the Hispanic community to grow at Immaculate Conception.”