Nolan’s T-P religion coverage chronicled ‘hands’ of Jesus

finney    It was Jan. 7, 1973 – a Sunday morning – and Bruce Nolan was back home from Mass when the phone rang.
    As a rookie reporter recently hired by The Times-Picayune, Nolan had learned through experience that time away from the office wasn’t really his own. Sure enough, the voice on the other end was a city desk editor, informing Nolan vaguely that there had been a disturbance at the Howard Johnson’s hotel on Loyola Avenue, and he needed to hustle down to the CBD immediately.
    “It was very confused and indistinct,” Nolan recalls. “There was a report that there was a sniper at work, and some people had been hit and I needed to get downtown. Those were my only instructions.”
    Nolan parked a few blocks from the Howard Johnson’s and walked the rest of the way, passing by Duncan Plaza across the street from the hotel, where photographer Gerry Arnold had been in position to capture images of wounded police officers hit by the sniper fire.
    Nolan snaked his way behind a fire truck, and to his left and right, police officers were emptying their guns into the hotel facade, firing at anything they thought was moving.
    In the end, at nightfall, sniper Mark Essex was killed after emerging from his rooftop enclosure. Over the course of a week, Essex had killed nine people, including five police officers, and wounded 13.
    This was heady stuff for a 1971 journalism graduate of Loyola University New Orleans. In the space of a four months, he had covered the private plane crash over Alaska that killed House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, the Rault Center fire in which five people perished and the Mark Essex sniper attack.
    In those days of journalism apprenticeship, Nolan worked most weekends and nights. He got the cop beat and learned how to extract information from homicide detectives, standing over a draped body at the curb. He moved up the newspaper tree, becoming a beat reporter in Jefferson Parish, chief of the West Bank bureau and then assistant city editor.
    “I was drifting further and further away from reporting,” Nolan said. “In 1994, we had been through a grueling mayor’s race between Marc Morial and Donnie Mintz, and I felt I was losing touch with the reality of a reporter’s life, and that was interfering with my ability to be a good editor. I asked for a sabbatical to go back to reporting for six months, and I asked for the religion beat, and they said yes. After six months or so, I said to myself, ‘I’m really liking this a lot.’”
    And for the last 18 years – ending on Sept. 30 when the Newhouse family decided to give a 24/7 city a 24/3 newspaper – Nolan had won national awards for his coverage of religion in the New Orleans area. The respect with which Nolan was held among local religious leaders was evident Oct. 19 when more than a dozen, including Archbishop Gregory Aymond, attended a farewell reception in his honor at the Gates of Prayer Synagogue in Metairie.
    “What an amazing responsibility it is to know everything about every faith in New Orleans and then report about it,” Rabbi Robert Loewy said. “Maybe Bruce didn’t know everything, but he sure knew a lot, and he steeped himself in learning in order to report what this faith community is all about. And that’s not easy, when you realize this is the city often referred to as Sin City.”
    Nolan saw what many others, including editors, were missing.
    “Religion is the worst covered, most important topic in American journalism,” Nolan said. “There are the old stereotypes of the ‘church reporter,’ who in many places had been an elderly man or woman writing about Pastor Jones giving his last sermon. I’ve always felt religion ought to be covered with the same intelligence, energy, skepticism and appreciation as politics, business, sports and other areas of American life.
    “Religion plays an enormous influence in shaping public policy. It was clear to me that faith broadly shapes who we marry, where we give our money, where we send our kids to school and what our common goals as a society should be. Faith, in many ways, predates and even determines whether you are a Republican or a Democrat.”
    Because Catholicism stamped the culture of south Louisiana from its founding – at one point it was the mandated state religion – and because it remains the avowed religion of a plurality of its citizens, “it tends to dominate in terms of influence and sheer numbers,” Nolan said. “Secondarily, the Catholic Church is hierarchical and easily covered. It has a handful of people at the top who make news for 488,000 other (Catholics), and that’s not a situation you find in the Southern Baptist Convention or other religions.”
    The two biggest stories he covered, Nolan said, were the explosive revelations of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church in the 2000s and the contribution of people of all faiths to the resurrection of New Orleans after Katrina. Both were unprecedented and earth-shattering.
Accountability
    “I think institutionally the church is a different church with respect to children,” Nolan said. “However, you cannot fail to note that not a single bishop has ever been asked to resign or step down. There is no mechanism for the bishops to hold themselves accountable to each other, and there is no history of the Vatican holding individual bishops accountable for their failures in this area. That is a conspicuous absence. It’s all the more conspicuous because in American life, when an institution fails, there is always an effort to understand why it failed and there is a change in leadership. If you’re a banker and you blow up your bank, you step down. The CEO is gone.”
    The hordes of volunteers from faith groups around the country who rebuilt New Orleans house by house still give Nolan pause that something very powerful was at work.
    “No city in American history has been supported by such a sustained outpouring of domestic aid, of just neighbor helping neighbor, on the scale and duration that New Orleans has been,” Nolan said.
    Nolan wrote a story on the Methodist church from Ginghamsburg, Ohio, that made 50 rebuild trips to New Orleans.
    “The preacher wore blue jeans and sandals,” Nolan said. “His congregation felt they were the hands and feet of Christ.”
Cavalry showed up
    Nolan came across a woman from Gentilly who after spending two years in a trailer with her disabled husband was at the end of her rope.
    “She was beginning to think about ending her life,” Nolan said, “when a Baptist volunteer who happened to be an amateur rodeo cowboy from Colorado showed up. He was also an electrician, and he left the rodeo circuit to come to New Orleans to live. He slept in the back of his truck in the church parking lot.”
    The cowboy showed up at the woman’s trailer door one day and said, “You probably don’t remember this, but you signed up for help, and I’m here.”
    “She told me later, he had saved her life,” Nolan said.
    “Only the federal government has the pure horsepower to pull a community like ours out of the ditch, but it was the individual volunteers coming out of the churches and synagogues who kept homeowners alive until they could heal,” Nolan said. “That was an extraordinary thing to watch. It was just over and over and over and got bigger and bigger and bigger.”
    Nolan wrote stories with meaning. His voluntary departure from The Times-Picayune is a community’s loss.
    Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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