When Tony Ricard was a mostly frightened incoming freshman at St. Augustine High School in 1978, he didn’t know what to expect as he walked through the doors of the city’s premier Catholic high school for African-American males.
He just looked around and saw that he was, well, little.
“When I started at St. Aug my shoe size was 3 1/2,” said the man who would go on to be ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of New Orleans in 1995. “I was little bitty as a freshman.”
Since trying out for the football team wasn’t an option, Tony competed for a spot in the Marching 100, where he used his years of piano lessons to catch on as a xylophone player, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Now, the former pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea Church is returning to St. Augustine in a role that he envisions will help nurture a younger flock. Father Ricard has joined the St. Augustine administration as director of campus ministry and 10th-grade theology teacher.
In his new role, Father Ricard will help the Josephites coordinate the religious life of the school, offer pastoral counseling and work under the direction of Dr. Karen Collins, the new president of St. Augustine, the first laywoman and non-Josephite ever to serve in that role.
“My job will be all the action stuff – coordinating the liturgies and the broader religious practices – and also overseeing the service projects,” Father Ricard said. “This is a great opportunity for evangelization. We can show some of the non-Catholics that there is joy and excitement and fun in the Catholic Church, that it’s not just something that other churches have going on.”
Father Ricard, who served as pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea since 1999, said he can relate to the fears and concerns of young students, because he has walked in their shoes.
He has fond memories of Edwin Hampton, the revered St. Augustine band leader who transformed his students into a highly polished musical machine whose reach extended far beyond music.
“What I remember the most about Mr. Hamp is that he was a very, very classy man – a very honest man,” Father Ricard said. “He defined the style and the tone and the entire spirit of the school. His word was his bond. If he said something was going to happen, it happened. You never had to be left with any questions. He was a father figure to so many of the boys. Although most of us had our own daddies, there was no question when he spoke, I was running and jumping to do it.”
In a way, Father Ricard said he hopes his campus ministry will draw on Hampton’s spirit, which reminds him of the stories from the Book of Joshua.
“What Joshua did was take a band of men, and they marched around the city and took it over, and that’s what St. Aug has done,” Father Ricard said. “We’ve been blasting the trumpets and knocking down the walls of segregation and hatred.”
Father Ricard said he hopes to enhance an already well-established service ministry at the school. Every student is expected to complete 20 hours of service each semester. “All these service projects give the students the opportunity to give back and also to show the rest of the city that the men of St. Augustine are all about giving back to the community,” Father Ricard said.
Father Ricard taught religion for four years at St. Augustine and was part of the school administration following Hurricane Katrina, when St. Augustine, St. Mary’s Academy and Xavier Prep came together on Xavier Prep’s uptown campus to form the MAX School.
He is returning to the school at a time of transition and promise.
“What I see is a lot of alumni are stepping up and realizing we need to do something to support our school,” Father Ricard said. “One of the blessings of all Catholic schools is the great level of support that the alumni provide, and part of my desire to give back is because I know what a blessing St. Aug was to me. It’s time for all Catholic school alumni to pay it forward. Those priests, nuns and lay teachers sacrificed everything for us, so what are we going to do to give back to them, let alone the students?”
The Josephites instilled in their St. Aug students the knowledge and the confidence that they could face and overcome any obstacle, Father Ricard said. That is even more important today when kids are getting such mixed messages from the culture.
“I think St. Aug helped me to realize that I had the qualities already within me to be a success in the world, to be a solid, moral individual,” Father Ricard said. “Part of what St. Aug and all Catholic schools do is awaken in us that we need to stand up and live out what we profess. I always jokingly say that at St. Aug, I walked around not with an attitude of superiority but with an attitude that I was capable. You don’t walk out wondering whether or not you’re going to be able to achieve. You already know it.”
Father Ricard takes comfort in the rallying together of the alumni and the leadership of Collins, principal Don Boucree and the Josephites.
“The future of the school is going to be exceptional,” he said. “Dr. Collins has a phenomenal plan for what’s going to happen down the road. What the school needs is for everybody in the community – the St. Aug family as well as the rest of the Catholic community – to stand behind her and back her up. We’ve got a wonderful administration. Now it’s time for everybody to step up.”
A younger flock
What will it be like moving from the ministerial role as pastor of a parish to helping young men find their spiritual bearings?
“In a very real way I’m going to become pastor of a new church community,” Father Ricard said. “A lot of the things I did as pastor I’ll be doing again – from taking care of those who may be in a crisis situation and making sure I’m meeting their needs. I’ll be able to do a lot more one-on-one counseling. I’m just getting a younger congregation.”
When Father Ricard was asked before Hurricane Katrina to consider teaching religion at St. Aug by former principal Reginald Delecia, he said he was impressed by the urgency of the principal’s request. At the time, Father Ricard was crossing the country giving youth revivals.
“He told me, ‘You’ve traveled all over the world bringing some powerful stuff to our young people. Don’t you think your brothers at St. Aug deserve some of that, too?’” Father Ricard recalled. “I know I’ve been blessed with a life and opportunities that some priests only dream of. This is going to be such a blessing to be able to go back and bring this to the table.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.