Fr. Jacques: Church could energize a community
The Gospel is messy business. Night after night in the early 1990s, Edmundite Father Michael Jacques tried coaxing himself to sleep in his rectory bedroom to the left of St. Peter Claver Church in New Orleans.
Instead of counting sheep, he counted bullets.
As a white man who grew up speaking French amid the Eastern white pines of northern Maine near the Canadian border, Father Jacques didn't have to look far to interpret the signs of the times in inner-city New Orleans. The staccato gunfire of the drug war in his 6th Ward neighborhood was its own flashing neon sign.
Just down the street from the church, a pastel motel rented rooms by the hour. The humble but socially significant architecture of Treme, where the front porch of Creole shotguns created a gathering place for neighbors to share their stories and wisdom after work, became quaintly anachronistic as drug dealers claimed street corners at sunset, forcing a proud people and culture inside behind locked doors.
It is one thing for a Catholic priest to hear and understand the social teaching of the Catholic Church. It is quite another, as Father Jacques did, to give that teaching flesh as if the Christian life itself demanded it.
Because it did.
And that was the genius of Michael Jacques, who died far too young on June 7, the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, of complications from emergency heart surgery. He was 64 and had served at St. Peter Claver Church for 29 years.
Yes, Father Jacques was a community organizer – that job description carries with it negative connotations these days when viewed from a purely political perspective – but at his heart he was a faith-based organizer, seeing the Gospel as a mandate for the baptized, the elect of God, to unleash their latent power.
“The genius he had was changing the field from community-based organizing to faith-based organizing,” said Tom Costanza, director of the Office of Justice and Peace for Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans. “He knew that when you have congregations, you have faith, you have power, you have money and you have numbers. He saw that and capitalized on it. But fundamentally, this was not just social activism. This was people living out their baptismal call.”
The weapon he wielded was truth. Under the umbrella of All Congregations Together (ACT), dozens of parishioners, each with a clipboard, would fan out in the neighborhood and conduct one-on-one interviews, allowing people trapped behind closed doors to recover their voice. Residents answered questions about crime, drugs, blighted housing and education, and ACT compiled the statistics.
The payoff came at a community action night – usually inside a Catholic or Protestant church – when politicians and police officials learned the meaning of the power of the people and the power of the truth. No crawfishing was allowed. Sweating was.
“Going door-to-door gave people information they never would have had,” Costanza said. “The information was undeniable. It could not be refuted. It was always truthful but never easy for politicians.”
All of a sudden, small hills and then mountains began to move. The New Orleans Police Department adopted community-oriented policing standards and placed police substations in high-crime areas. A murder rate that spiked at 421 killings in 1995 began to tumble. And then, people of faith began to see with their own eyes how their faith and action had made the world a better place.
“There was power in an ecumenical and interfaith movement,” Costanza said. “I think Michael had the correct vision of the church. Some may not have that same vision, but the reality for Michael is that he was living with the problems day to day in a violent neighborhood. There was a certain sense of urgency that he faced every day that not every pastor faces.”
At St. Peter Claver, each small victory built a sense of ownership among parishioners, who jumped at chances to become involved in the multitude of parish ministries. Believing that lay leadership was the key to a vibrant parish – and training created good leadership – Father Jacques invested heavily in workshops and continuing education for ministry leaders.
“That's probably what gives me comfort right now,” said Devin Boucree, youth minister at St. Peter Claver, whose parents' wedding was the first Father Jacques performed in New Orleans. “Some parishes losing their shepherd might be in a whirlwind. But he laid us such a great foundation and inspired all of us to take ownership of our own parish and our own faith. Even though he's gone, he's still here.”
St. Peter Claver Parish was teetering on extinction when Father Jacques arrived as a parochial vicar in 1984 and became the pastor the next year. In the last 29 years, through tithing and “ownership,” the parish has become one of the top four in the entire archdiocese in terms of financial contributions.
When author Paul Wilkes was looking to profile “fabulous” Catholic parishes across the United States, he heard through the grapevine about St. Peter Claver and came away so amazed that he placed it in his top eight in his book, “Excellent Catholic Parishes.”
“What made Father Jacques the man that he was was his ability to transcend his Maine, 'white-boy' upbringing and just really immerse himself, not just in a black neighborhood, but really into black souls,” Wilkes said. “He really had a transplant at some point along the way. He was no longer a white man. His power was in his ability to touch people and to inflame them and keep the fire burning. He wasn't a one-shot minister who would scream and yell and get the whoops. He had sustained power, and he was afraid of no one.”
It was no surprise, then, when a few days after Katrina, Father Jacques rowed his canoe up to the rectory and began recovering parish files so that he could reconnect with the St. Peter Claver diaspora. St. Peter Claver came back bigger and better than ever. But as dean of the Council of Deans, Father Jacques also had to absorb the collateral damage inflicted by those who fiercely opposed Archbishop Alfred Hughes' decision to close two dozen church parishes after Katrina.
“Father Michael was a man of profound faith, extraordinary commitment to his people and his parish and utterly loyal to the archdiocese and to the bishops he served,” Archbishop Hughes said.
In one painful post-Katrina episode, Father Jacques celebrated Mass at St. Augustine Church, which in the archdiocesan reorganization was scheduled to be closed as a parish – under the authority of St. Peter Claver – but remain open for Sunday Mass.
Protestors circled the altar during the preface, which precedes the Eucharistic Prayer. One held a sign that read: “Michael Jacques, you are a thief." Another protestor with a video camera walked within three feet of Father Jacques as he tried to pray at the altar. At that point, the Mass was stopped by archdiocesan officials.
Deacon Allen Stevens, who has worked with Father Jacques since 1997 at St. Philip the Apostle and St. Peter Claver, said Father Jacques grieved over that conflict, which later was resolved when St. Augustine remained open as a parish.
“At every opportunity, he empowered African-American men and women,” Deacon Stevens said. “The number of people he touched was unbelievable. We may never know the impact he had on so many lives. His genius was that he understood the culture of the people. He walked in our shoes. He did not ask anyone in that church to do something that he was unwilling to do. He rolled up his sleeves and got down on his knees and mopped the floors. He commanded respect, but he also humbled himself.”
At his heart, Father Jacques thrived in his own one-on-one ministry as a pastor. When Boucree was a freshman in high school, he remembers his pastor collaring him and four other teenagers to report for summer work at the parish.
“I say now that he saved our lives,” said Boucree, now 26. “We could have been doing anything at that time. He said, 'Look, I want you guys here every morning at 8 o'clock, no exceptions. I need you here.' For four years of high school, we cut grass, did plumbing, moved things, answered the telephone, delivered food baskets – as long as we were off the streets. He found a place for us.”
Boucree said Father Jacques used the painful episode at St. Augustine to get him through a rough patch of his own.
“People were downing me and telling me negative things, and he shared that experience with me,” Boucree said. “He said, 'You know, Devin, if I worried about all the negative things people said about me, then I wouldn't be the man that I am.' The one thing you can take from that is that he was humbled. But there was nothing and no one he feared, outside of God.”
Jeremy Tauriac, 19, said Father Jacques gave him the go-ahead to paint a mural in the new youth building, a painting that depicts the crucifixion, the troubled waters of slavery and Katrina, and the anchor symbolized by St. Peter Claver Church.
“How do you like it, Father Mike?” Tauriac asked one day a few weeks ago.
“It's nice, but I'll like it a lot better when it's finished,” he replied.
Then, one night at 11 p.m. as Tauriac and a few friends were finishing up the mural, they heard a knock on the door. It was Father Jacques, holding a bag of hot calzones for the artists.
“All the restaurants were closed, so how did he get that food? Some kind of way, he did,” Tauriac said. “I asked him one time, 'Father Mike, why do you do so much for me? You do so much during the week, and you've got to be tired.' And he said, 'Well, it's because I love you all and pray for you every day, because I love you.'”