Soon to be 97, Msgr. Duke is a priest forever
The living room, like the man, is uncluttered and purposeful.
Msgr. Charles Duke, who turns 97 on April 12, can reach out with his left hand and grab his breviary. To his right are spiritual books and magazines. His rosary is in his pocket.
“I say my book, say my rosary,” he said. “It’s good penance.”
Instead of a television set on the far end of the living room, a simple wooden altar, hand-crafted by local builder Dennis Maggio, is dressed and ready for the occasions Msgr. Duke celebrates Mass privately.
Not that the former pastor uses the altar daily. Five days a week, the priest who built thriving St. Ann Church, Shrine and School from a sinking field off Transcontinental Drive in Metairie – one block from where he now lives – gets a ride to St. Matthew the Apostle Church in River Ridge, where he presides and preaches at the 9:15 a.m. Mass.
“I’ve always been busy,” he said. “In fact, it drives me crazy just sitting here.”
His lone concessions to acting his age are the walker he uses primarily for balance and the elevated stool that helps relieve some of the pressure of a broken bone in his back while he recites the Eucharistic Prayer.
His biting wit and unfiltered honesty are intact.
“I was pulling up one of those darn stockings, and I broke a bone in my back,” Msgr. Duke said, smiling. “I didn’t fall, but it hurts. It happened a couple of years ago. Everything with me is a couple of years ago.”
He was born in Philadelphia in 1919, one of 10 children. His father was a telegrapher. “It was a dot-dash thing,” he said.
The economic crash of the Great Depression didn’t help things, either. Msgr. Duke was the first of six children from his widowed father’s second marriage.
“My mother was a great one to find things,” he said. “She’d go to the corner grocery store and buy stuff by the sackful.”
After he was ordained as a Marist priest in 1947, Msgr. Duke spent five years in San Francisco and six years in Georgia before coming to Algiers in 1958 to help pump life into St. Julian Eymard Parish, which the Marists had first staffed in 1952.
Perhaps because he intuitively understood the value of a nickel, care with other people’s money always was a top priority. Someone told him Archbishop Joseph Rummel had an unwritten practice of offering $100,000 to every new parish, so he made an appointment to see him.
"We don’t do that,” Archbishop Rummel told him. “Go see if you can borrow the money.”
Msgr. Duke figured he needed $280,000 to build a school and cafeteria. “Archbishop Rummel told me, ‘Let the kids eat at their desks. That’s what I did,’” Msgr. Duke said.
Turned down for a bank loan, Msgr. Duke finally found a local undertaker to front him the construction money. “You know, if you can’t pay it back, they’ll have to get another pastor,” the man told him.
Not exactly encouraging words from an undertaker.
When Archbishop John Cody came to New Orleans to serve as coadjutor archbishop in 1961, he saw the growing Catholic population beyond Orleans Parish and took helicopter rides over undeveloped Jefferson Parish to pick out real estate for new parishes.
“He was the sharpest businessman I ever met,” Msgr. Duke said. “This diocese would have been way behind if it wasn’t for Cody.”
Although he had no formal training in finances, Msgr. Duke, like Archbishop Cody, could do simple math. The new archbishop mandated that all parishes place their funds into a central archdiocesan account, allowing for in-house loans at much cheaper interest rates.
“You had all these priests in good parishes sitting on the money, and the other ones had to go out (to banks) and borrow, like I did,” Msgr. Duke said.
When Archbishop Philip Hannan came to New Orleans in 1965, Msgr. Duke clicked with a man who also knew the inherent value of real estate. Archbishop Hannan’s Irish-born father had started a plumbing business in Washington, D.C., and used his money to gobble up property, an opportunity that had been denied him in his native country.
Msgr. Duke transferred to the diocesan priesthood in 1969, and later Archbishop Hannan named him chancellor for administrative affairs, in charge of major archdiocesan real estate transactions.
“I never studied it, but I figured if you were one of 10 kids, you ought to be sharp,” Msgr. Duke said.
A good deal
One of his best deals was selling a property near St. Patrick’s Church in New Orleans that essentially had been gifted to the archdiocese. Two prospective buyers came to the chancery “all dressed up” and slid an envelope to him across the table.
“They didn’t seal the envelope, so I opened it up and saw ‘$150,000’ written down,” Msgr. Duke said. “I said, ‘The committee doesn’t have to meet for this one. The answer is no.’”
Eventually, the price edged up to $350,000, then to $650,000, then to $850,000.
“Hannan said, ‘Take it,’” Msgr. Duke recalled. “I said, ‘I’m going to get a million.’ Hannan’s good friend had said that was a good offer. I said, ‘Yeah, but she said $650,000 was a good offer, too.’ We ended up taking $850,000.”
Many years ago, Msgr. Duke said, “a shrink came in to talk to all the priests, and the upshot of it was the priests felt they were overworked and needed some place to get away to.”
Someone offered undeveloped property for a priests’ villa in Tangipahoa Parish, which Archbishop Hannan liked. “But I told the archbishop, ‘It’s going to cost us $400,000 just to bring the land up to level,’” Msgr. Duke said.
Msgr. Duke eventually found a large, furnished residence on the Tchefuncte River in Covington that could sleep 12. The asking price was $450,000, and Msgr. Duke got it for $425,000.
“Originally, the house also had a boat, and one of the priests said, ‘Too bad they got rid of the boat or Charlie would’ve gotten that, too!’” Msgr. Duke said. “When Hannan came back on Monday morning after the first open house, he said to me, ‘That’s a nice place!’ I said, ‘I thought it was. That’s why I bought it!’”
Had to act as a caution light
Part of Msgr. Duke’s responsibilities was persuading Archbishop Hannan to abandon some of his wildest ideas, like buying one facility and converting it into a senior residence. Msgr. Duke hated the location.
“I asked him, ‘Where are you going to put the gun turrets?’” Msgr. Duke recalled. “Hannan had a million ideas. And if he wasn’t in a good mood, all you had to do was say something about the war. Oh, man, he was the ‘Jumping Padre.’ He was a kind man.”
When he was a Marist priest in Algiers, the police called him one day because a man was standing atop the Mississippi River Bridge and threatening to jump.
“As the drivers were passing, they were yelling, ‘Jump, chicken, jump!’” Msgr. Duke said.
Msgr. Duke was able to talk the distraught man down and followed him to the police station. “I asked him, ‘Why did you send for me? You’re from Gretna. You don’t know me,’” Msgr. Duke said. “He said the word on the street was, ‘Whatever you say, that’s the way it is!’”
As St. Ann pastor, Msgr. Duke went against the grain in 1993 when the archdiocese hired an outside firm to conduct the Bicentennial Endowment Campaign. The fund-raising experts asked every parish to personally visit parishioners in their homes to pick up their pledge cards.
He knew his people
Msgr. Duke wasn’t biting. At Mass one Sunday, Msgr. Duke held up a pledge card and said: “I know you don’t want to wait for somebody to come knock on your door. I’m not going to tell you how much you’re supposed to give, but you’re not giving it to me; you’re giving it to God. So, make up your mind.”
“We were first,” Msgr. Duke said. “Those experts were surprised I had said their way was not the way to do it.”
He is so beloved that every evening, a meal cooked by one of his former parishioners shows up at his front door, needing only to be reheated. “It’s great, except they kind of got caught up on broccoli,” he said, smiling.
His straight-shooting style in public communications has led to some major surprises for penitents coming to him in the secrecy of the confessional.
“I’m absolutely different,” Msgr. Duke said. “They’ll say, ‘Gee, I was afraid of him, but when I sat there, he was just as nice as could be.’”
Msgr. Duke still loves his daily work as a priest, even if he can sense sometimes he is slowing down just a bit.
“When I preached, I used to be able to go boom, boom, boom,” Msgr. Duke said. “I never used notes. Now, on occasion, I think, ‘Where am I going with this?’ I don’t preach long. Some priests will beat all around the bush. I like to give some of them advice: ‘Father, I want you to keep this in mind. Get one idea and get that across and then sit down.’ People can only stand as much as their backsides will let them.”
He is a priest forever – or thereabouts.
“I thank God I have most of my marbles,” he said.