Bishop-elect Cheri: God’s song on his heart, lips
Bishop-elect Fernand (Ferd) Joseph Cheri III has been singing most of his life.
When he was just 3 years old, his mother Gladys recalls little Ferd, the first boy among her seven children, belting out a tune in their house on St. Anthony Street in New Orleans.
And now that he is to become auxiliary bishop of New Orleans with a Mass of Ordination March 23 at 2 p.m. at St. Louis Cathedral, Bishop-elect Cheri is still singing – this time, a song of thanksgiving.
“The experience of becoming a bishop – and how people are reacting to it – I feel like I sang a solo that became the community’s prayer,” said Bishop-elect Cheri, 63, who grew up in Epiphany Parish and later moved to St. Leo the Great Parish when his parents and their seven children migrated to the north side of St. Anthony Street near Dillard University.
“Everybody is blessed, everybody receives a blessing and everybody is excited about the blessing,” Bishop-elect Cheri said. “I think a lot of people have claimed this as their ordination.”
Speechless at news
The announcement came out of the blue Jan. 12 when Archbishop Gregory Aymond publicly introduced the man whom Pope Francis had named to become the 11th auxiliary bishop in the history of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
No one could have been more surprised, however, than the self-effacing Franciscan priest was on Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014, when he picked up the phone in his campus ministry office at Quincy University, a 1,300-student school run by the Franciscans in rural Illinois, about 135 miles northwest of St. Louis.
Father Cheri had just completed a prayer service for athletes at Quincy when he went to his office to check on a few messages and finish some preparations for his spring semester as director of campus ministry when the phone rang.
“It was the apostolic nuncio (Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò),” Bishop-elect Cheri said. “He said his name real quickly, and he said, ‘Pope Francis has appointed you auxiliary bishop of New Orleans.’
“And I said, ‘Who is this?’”
When Archbishop Viganò repeated his name, Father Cheri, still a bit incredulous, asked, “How do you spell it?”
“He must have thought I was a complete fool because I was totally surprised,” Bishop-elect Cheri said. “It’s not every day you get a call from the apostolic delegate. So, he said his name again and he asked, ‘Well, what do you have to say?’ And I said, ‘Well, can you give me some time?’ I was real surprised. He said, ‘Well, it’s the weekend, so I’ll give you until Monday. … But don’t tell anybody.’”
For someone with close family ties – the Cheri family had 83 members attend a family reunion last year – keeping that secret was about as difficult as it gets. At least he had some training in his experience with the seal of confession.
When he came home for Christmas to visit the family, everyone was asking him, “When are you coming back to New Orleans?”
“I was just saying, ‘Well, whenever,’” Bishop-elect Cheri said, smiling.
Bishop-elect Cheri’s life story is one of amazing grace. Fernand Joseph Cheri Jr. was an Army veteran whose full-time job was delivering mail in New Orleans. He worked extra jobs to keep his children fed and in Catholic school uniforms. After finishing his regular mail route at 3 p.m., Cheri would drive to St. Mary’s Academy to do evening maintenance work. Later, he even helped build classroom buildings at the school.
Lots of family sacrifice
Gladys Cheri, who squeezed every nickel out of her husband’s salary, somehow made it all work. Gladys also worked for many years cooking for the Sisters of the Holy Family who staffed St. Mary’s Academy.
“It was quite interesting,” Bishop-elect Cheri said. “My dad would always say, ‘Y’all are breaking me!’ That was his favorite mantra. Of course, that never stopped us from saying we needed money. Somehow, we made it. When I think about living in a house with one bathroom for nine people, that’s amazing. We all took showers before we went to bed, but I kind of remember my daddy was the longest in the bathroom – he took advantage of it.”
Bishop-elect Cheri said his mother managed the family, while his father, who died in 1995 during heart surgery, was the “provider.”
“We learned a lot from both,” he said.
At Epiphany Church, the Cheri family arrived like ducks, walking single file and taking up an entire pew. Ferd had to choose between becoming an altar server and singing in the choir. It was no contest. Music won out.
“James Freeman was a great music teacher at Epiphany,” Bishop-elect Cheri said. “I wish he were alive. He’s probably turning over in his grave right now. I was one of his great challenges.”
Couldn’t sit still for piano
Young Ferd was too impatient and undisciplined to learn the piano from Freeman, but the young singer always could belt out a tune.
“He tried to get me to sing solos at church,” Bishop-elect Cheri recalled. “I got up one day and I was so nervous and shaking that my voice quivered so badly. No one came to my rescue. I had to bear that cross alone. I do remember my siblings getting on my case. You would’ve thought I would have given up singing after that.”
In the 1960s, when the archdiocese was making efforts to desegregate its churches and the Cheris had moved into St. Leo the Great Parish, Archbishop Joseph Rummel, working through the Epiphany pastor, asked them to attend Mass at the previously all-white St. Leo the Great.
Even though they were leaving behind all their church friends at Epiphany, Bishop-elect Cheri’s parents respected the archbishop’s wishes. “They did that to integrate the church,” Bishop-elect Cheri said. “We were just going to do it. I don’t think there was any conversation about it.”
That experience, as mysterious as it was, was an important signpost of what it meant to grow up both black and Catholic in New Orleans. As a member of Epiphany – which was staffed by Josephite priests – Bishop-elect Cheri grew up in a protective cocoon where there was a sense of “really strong community.”
“We were protected from a lot of the racism in the country and even in the city,” he said.
Thinking of a vocation
Even after his family began attending St. Leo the Great Church, Ferd continued attending Epiphany School, and he began thinking about the priesthood. When he was in the eighth grade and it was time for him to choose a high school, Ferd had set his sights on St. Augustine.
“I was going to go to St. Augustine and then after that go into the Josephites,” Bishop-elect Cheri said. “But my eighth-grade teacher, (Blessed Sacrament) Sister Elena Marie, told me, ‘If you go to St. Augustine High School, you will never become a priest.’ The nuns there were really powerful in my life. All of them were sweet – just good women and good role models. They encouraged me and allowed me to be a leader in the school. It was great modeling.”
He chose St. John Prep, then a school for young men considering the priesthood. Bishop-elect Cheri played fullback on the Chargers’ football team and sang in the glee club.
When he went on to St. Joseph Seminary College in Covington, there were about 15 black seminarians studying for dioceses across Louisiana.
Challenges of the times
There were difficult challenges. Sometimes it was an insensitive, racially charged remark by a professor that left him wondering if he truly would be able to persevere in his vocation. But every time something traumatic occurred, Bishop-elect Cheri said, someone came into his life to help reassure him and save his vocation.
Many of those “father figures” were members of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, whom he had met during summer conferences. They became sounding boards whenever things got rough.
“The only black priest I had ever met growing up was Father Thomas Glasgow,” Bishop-elect Cheri said. “I was in high school when Bishop (Harold) Perry was ordained a bishop. I had seen him but I had never met him. But through the clergy caucus, I was able to connect with him and with others even more.
“There were a number of black priests in the clergy caucus who were supportive of me. To hear some of those guys tell their stories about how they survived and stayed in the seminary, I felt like what I was going through, as difficult as it was, was nothing compared to what they went through. Those people came into my life at significant moments.”
Bishop-elect Cheri mentioned Father August Thompson, who had completed his seminary studies for the Diocese of Alexandria but had to wait more than a year before he was ordained to the priesthood.
“That’s perseverance,” Bishop-elect Cheri said.
By the time he got to Notre Dame Seminary to begin his theology studies, Bishop-elect Cheri felt compelled to learn everything he could about ministering to all people, especially those on the margins of the church. He took a mission trip to Jamaica, and his role was to help run a catechetical program at an orphanage.
At night, the custodians of the orphanage let out guard dogs to patrol the compound. Bishop-elect Cheri got back to the orphanage late one evening and, suddenly, all he could see were teeth and claws.
“You talk about your scary moments,” he said. “The kids in the orphanage realized I had walked out on my own, and they came running out behind me and scared away the dogs.”
While at Notre Dame, he met two other religious women – Marianite Sister Judy Gomila and Sister of the Holy Family Marie Bernadette LeDuff – who worked in the 9th Ward with the needy in St. Philip the Apostle Parish, which encompassed the Desire Housing Development.
“They were always showing us what we needed to do,” Bishop-elect Cheri said. “They encouraged us by saying, ‘You can do this. You can do that.’ Sister Judy and Sister Bernadette were a great team. I did home visitations with them, and they really got me in touch with just being present to people. Every situation was a real opportunity to learn how I could relate to people and feel comfortable around people.”
Another of his clinical pastoral training experiences was even scarier. Even though it would have been his last choice, he was selected in the summer of 1976 to serve as a chaplain at California State Prison in Vacaville, a medical prison with 2,300 inmates.
On his first day, he went for lunch and turned around with his tray only to see just one spot left at a table for six – and the other five men sitting at the table were inmates.
“I was scared to death,” Bishop-elect Cheri said. “Of course, I was in my clerics, and to all of these guys, I was a black Catholic priest, and they had never seen one before, nor did they care. I was the smallest person there. I felt like I was sitting with a football team.”
Prison ministry opened eyes
“We were sitting around the table and, of course, the conversation leads into, ‘Who are you and what are you doing here?’ In my mind, I was trying to figure out if I was sitting with a mass murderer. It was a moment where I had to be myself, but I also had to show a sense of self-assurance, otherwise it would have been damaging. In those 10 weeks, those men taught me more things than I ever thought possible. My ministry at Vacaville gave me the courage to go on to be a priest.”
Looking back on his final year at Notre Dame Seminary, Bishop-elect Cheri sees more evidence of God working in his life. As one of the seminary’s few black seminarians, he tried to give classmates a broader sense of how best to minister to black Catholics and give them a greater understanding of cultural differences.
“When I came back from prison work, I realized I was interested in making sure everybody was being formed, and I began looking at this more intently for myself,” he said. “I needed more advanced grounding.”
His yearning for broader formation, both for himself and his classmates, led to his arranging seminary talks by several theologians who “understood black theology and ministry to black people.” Bishop-elect Cheri admits some at the seminary raised their eyebrows, but his spiritual advisor knew what he was trying to accomplish.
Ordained in 1978
He was ordained to the diaconate in January 1978 at Epiphany Church and then was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Philip Hannan on May 20, 1978, at St. Louis Cathedral.
He was assigned for a year to Our Lady of Lourdes in New Orleans, whose pastor was Bishop Perry, and then went in 1979 to St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Marrero, working under Father Doug Doussan.
Just as he had at Our Lady of Lourdes, Father Cheri developed a strong music ministry, building a 70-member youth choir within three months. Even then, he had to tread carefully because there was a delicate balance between white and black parishioners, and the youth choir was made up mostly of black teens.
“We had so many people at church, we had to start another Mass,” Bishop-elect Cheri said. “I made sure the leadership of the parish understood what was going to happen and what differences it would make culturally for the Mass. We brought in all these expert liturgists.”
Parishioners reacted positively to the new music program.
“One woman got up and said, ‘I have all my young children in the choir and I used to battle with them about going to church,’” Bishop-elect Cheri said. “‘Now, they’re battling with me to get me to church.’ That whole experience taught me that we really need to help people see the value of our differences. Sometimes we just don’t see it. We go with how we think things should be, but our view is not the only view.”
Discerned religious call
After serving from 1985-91 as pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish in New Orleans, Bishop-elect Cheri said he began to feel a tug to consider joining a religious community.
“It was always something I had toyed with,” Bishop-elect Cheri said.
He had discussed the possible call with Atlanta Archbishop James P. Lyke, but the archbishop told him, “You could never be a religious because you’d have to leave New Orleans.”
“I was toying with the idea because I was living alone and I had some nights when I just wished I could talk to somebody about stuff,” Bishop-elect Cheri said. “You can call a friend, but it’s different when you’re eating with somebody and can share your day and what’s going on in your life.”
He began by calling the superiors of several different religious communities with whom he had experience working in New Orleans – the Franciscans, Josephites, Vincentians, Dominicans and Holy Cross Fathers. Each superior came to New Orleans to meet with him.
“Basically, I chose the Friars because of St. Francis and his idea of service to the poor, the marginalized, the variety of possibilities of working with homeless people or in prison ministry,” Bishop-elect Cheri said. “I felt I wanted to do something other than just parish ministry. The Friars offered that possibility to me. I also knew of a lot of black Friars who were working around the country. I thought this might be a good fit.”
Learned way of St. Francis
Bishop-elect Cheri spent one year in the Franciscans’ pre-novitiate, which gave him a chance to see what living in community was all about while doing prison ministry in Joliet, Illinois.
He then went for two years of study in the novitiate in Franklin, Indiana, in order to learn more about the ministries and inner workings of the Franciscans’ Province of the Sacred Heart.
He taught and was a campus minister at Hales Franciscan High School in Chicago from 1993-96 and then served from 1996-2002 as pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Nashville, Tennessee, that diocese’s only black Catholic parish.
St. Katharine Drexel ties
“It was established by Katharine Drexel,” Bishop-elect Cheri said of the saint who also founded Xavier University. “That school really created the black Catholic community in Nashville. It was a really great experience.”
From 2002-08, he helped in a special project of the Friars in East St. Louis, Illinois, living at St. Benedict the Black Friary and working as a guidance counselor and choir director at Althoff Catholic High School in Belleville, Illinois. He and two other Friars also helped out in area parishes.
Bishop-elect Cheri also coached weightlifting at Althoff, a holdover hobby from his youth football days at St. John Prep.
“I just told the kids to do their best,” he said. “I showed them how to lift, and they learned the proper technique so they could go up in weight. The biggest problem occurs if you lose your concentration and get distracted and turn your head in the middle of a lift. That’s when you can strain a muscle.”
While at Althoff, Bishop-elect Cheri also tried to convince parents to do anything they could to send their children to Catholic high school.
“It was the best secret in the Diocese of Belleville,” Bishop-elect Cheri said. “I wanted to get some of the kids from East St. Louis to go there because the public high school was horrible. The drop-out rate in the public high school was terrible. Sixty-seven percent of the freshman class never made it to graduation. You needed an alternative place.”
After spending a year as associate director of campus ministry at Xavier University back home in New Orleans, Bishop-elect Cheri served for the last 3 1/2 years as campus minister at Quincy University. The pastoral setting and the chance to work with young people have kept him young.
“Quincy University was really a blessing,” he said. “I always say you’ve got to root yourself where you’re planted, and I really did there. It was a whole new setting in rural USA. I think for city kids who need to slow down or get a different pace of life, Quincy is the place that will slow them down.”
And now, he is back in the city of his birth, where his parents scrimped and saved, worked and worshiped, to make something of their lives. He can hear the music of his birth.
Shall we gather at the river?
“I look forward to working with the people of New Orleans again,” Bishop-elect Cheri said. “I’ve never left New Orleans. It’s always been a part of me.”