It was a simple idea, hardly rocket science.
At Easter, besides undraping the statues, refilling the fonts with holy water and decorating the altar with lilies, members of the Ladies Altar Society dutifully pull out the extra folding chairs they have stored away in a dark closet since Christmas.
Something tells them the church is going to be crowded.
But when Oblate Father Tony Rigoli, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe (St. Jude) Church on North Rampart Street, at the suggestion of the archdiocesan Office of Evangelization, put out small welcome cards and pencils in the pews asking people who might be interested in making the church their new worship home, he figured the effort might garner 10 or 15 responses.
At the end of St. Jude’s six Easter weekend Masses, Father Rigoli and his evangelization leaders, Eduardo and Maria Melendreras, counted 69 slips of new life for a parish with about 1,000 active and registered families.
“I mean, we couldn’t believe it,” Father Rigoli said. “Everybody was saying, ‘Wow, the Holy Spirit was really hitting this place.’ I could feel the Holy Spirit was really moving, very, very clearly.”
For Eduardo Melendreras, 59, the overwhelming response was particularly poignant. He was born in Cuba, and in 1961, he escaped the communist revolution with his mother to join his younger sister, who had come a year earlier to New Orleans. The family wound up living in the Iberville Housing Development, directly across the street from St. Jude, but for several years, Minita Melendreras made every St. Jude Novena to pray that her husband, Marcelino, one day would be able to rejoin them.
Marcelino finally made it to the U.S. in 1964, and when Eduardo was confirmed at St. Jude a few years later, he proudly assumed the name Jude at his confirmation.
That was pretty much the dead end of Melendreras’ Catholic journey, because life from that point kept getting in the way.
“For about 35 years, I was one of those folks who came to church on Christmas and Easter,” Melendreras said. “We all have our excuses why we don’t go to church. During the time that I was gone, I never lost my faith, but I never had a relationship with our Lord.”
It sounds logical. Melendreras had convinced himself he didn’t really need church. It was either too boring or it failed to touch him emotionally or spiritually or the music was traditional and not to his liking.
“Those are the excuses, right?” Melendreras said.
About seven years ago, a Southern Baptist colleague launched Melendreras on an improbable journey back to the Catholic Church without even knowing that St. Jude was the patron saint of impossible causes.
Melendreras said at the time he was feeling angry about a personal problem – and why wasn’t God responding to his pleas? His coworker asked him why he was so angry.
“It was making me angry because I knew Jesus had said, ‘Knock and I shall answer, ask and you shall receive,’” Melendreras said. “I told my friend at work that I didn’t really go to church that often, but I did remember a homily from a Mass about 10 years earlier. The priest said, ‘God is not a vending machine, and you just can’t stick coins in and continue to take out.’ That homily stuck with me because my prayer life was like that. I prayed to God when I needed something. I was really angry because I really needed God, and I felt guilty about asking because I was just putting money back in the vending machine.”
Melendreras’ colleague said he may have misinterpreted God’s message to him that day.
A father’s love
“You’re a father, Ed, aren’t you?” the man asked. “Well, God’s a father, too. You’d do anything for your children. God is the same way. If the relationship you had with your children was that they would only come any time they needed something, you would still give it to them, but you’d want more from that, wouldn’t you? God is the same way. You want your children to ask you for things. Don’t you also want them to come to you and tell you, ‘Hey, Dad, thank you. Hey, Dad, I love you. Hey, Dad, let me tell you what happened in my life today.’ That’s the kind of relationship God wants to have with you.”
Melendreras asked the man how he had built his relationship with God.
“I read Scripture,” he replied. “I read the psalms.”
That evening after work, Melendreras stopped at Pauline Books and Media in Metairie and bought a Bible.
“We had a Bible in the house, but it was one of those that people give you when you get married,” Melendreras said. “It’s got all the nice pictures and everything in it, and you never open it. I began to read the psalms and then I began to read the New Testament. I didn’t understand 80 percent of what I was reading.”
He kept reading.
Confluence of events
One day, about a month later, he found himself “just by circumstance” passing in front of St. Jude. The 7 a.m. daily Mass was being celebrated, and he was drawn inside, again. Over the next several days, Melendreras recalled reading in his Bible the parable of the rich young man who could not find it in himself to part with his possessions.
“It was really troubling to me,” he said.
That weekend, he attended Sunday Mass at St. Jude for the first time in years, “and lo and behold, guess what the Gospel was? That Gospel,” he said. “I’m waiting for Rod Serling to come out from the front of the altar. But I said, ‘Lord, I’m listening.’ And then Father Tony gets up there and he gives the most beautiful homily. I know that God loves me, and I know his love is unconditional, and I know he’s forgiving, but what I need is how do I take the word and implement that in my life as soon as I walk out the door?”
Then he heard the music, which at St. Jude has the power to raise the roof.
“The first thing that popped into my mind was, ‘OK, Lord, I can’t use that excuse any more,’” Melendreras said, laughing.
Reflecting on his journey
So, when Melendreras saw the stack of 69 names in the evangelization basket on Easter Sunday, he couldn’t help but think back to his own impossible journey.
Father Rigoli will follow up with each person by writing a warm letter of welcome, and Melendreras and his wife and the parish community will be there with open arms, just as the community was when Melendreras found his feet taking him back inside the church of his youth.
“I would invite them to come and see what a true family is and to just open their hearts and give the Lord a chance to touch them in a way that only he can touch them,” Melendreras said. “At Guadalupe, he’s done that for so many people, myself included. The 69 new ones came in and said they want to belong. It’s just so humbling. It’s just so beautiful. I mean, only God can make that happen.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.