Edmundite Father Michael Jacques, who energized his parishioners with a multitude of ministries and transformed St. Peter Claver Parish into one of the most vibrant in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, died Friday morning, June 7, at Ochsner Hospital of complications from a heart attack.
Father Jacques was 64 and had served as pastor of St. Peter Claver for the last 29 years.
Father Patrick Williams, executive director of the Department of Clergy, made the announcement of Father Jacques' death via email Friday morning.
"It is with great sadness that I inform you of the death of Fr. Michael Jacques S.S.E., pastor of St. Peter Claver Church," Father Williams said. "Fr. Michael was admitted to the hospital yesterday after an apparent heart attack. A heart procedure was done, but he died during the night from complications related to the heart attack.
"Please remember Fr. Michael and his family in your prayers as well as the St. Peter Claver and Edmundite communities."
Archbishop Gregory Aymond confirmed there will be an evening Vigil Service (wake) for Father Jacques on Friday, June 14, at St. Peter Claver Church in New Orleans. Visitation and a funeral Mass will be Saturday, June 15, also at St. Peter Claver. The exact times of the services are pending.
Archbishop Aymond said Father Jacques had been the principal celebrant at his brother Roger's funeral on June 4 in Hopewell Junction, N.Y.
Father Jacques attended a meeting with the Edmundite community and then flew back to New Orleans on Thursday, apparently complaining of chest pains. He went to the hospital on Thursday evening.
Archbishop Aymond said Father Jacques was a dynamic pastor.
"He was an extraordinary priest and his commitment to the people of the archdiocese of New Orleans and to the people of St. Peter Claver was unwavering," Archbishop Aymond said. "He was a leader not only in his parish but also in the civic community."
St. Peter Claver was considered such a vibrant inner-city parish that Paul Wilkes, author of "Excellent Catholic Parishes," profiled it as one of the top eight parishes in the United States.
"One could call it a Catholic village," Wilkes wrote. "It is a total, organic, holy place, not just where people gather together, but where life can be lived from within."
In 1993, Father Jacques wrote an op-ed for the Clarion Herald in which he noted, "Almost every night, I go to sleep to the sound of random gunfire in my neighborhood. Around the corner from St. Peter Claver Church, prostitutes openly conduct their business in bars. We have several motels in the area that are little more then camouflaged brothels."
Because of those social ills affecting his parish, Father Jacques teamed up with All Congregations Together to hold city leaders and police officials accountable, using one-on-one interviews with people in the neighborhood to establish a documented record of major issues.
He invested parish funds heavily into the training of lay leaders, and, as a result, a multitude of ministries emerged. St. Peter Claver Church is filled to capacity every Sunday.
"People believe change is taking place," Father Jacques said. "We are here, and we won't stop this fight."
In one of his last interviews with the Clarion Herald on March 23 – in which he displayed his cooking talents for the Lenten recipe section called Holy Smoke – Father Jacques talked about his life as a cook with parishioners such as Leah Chase in his family.
“I have no idea how to make gumbo – none," he said, smiling. "My thinking is there are too many great gumbo cooks in this city and in this parish for me to cook it."
Father Jacques was a native of Maine and a culinary school-trained cook who prepared his own meals in the St. Peter Claver rectory since becoming pastor in 1984.
“For me the joy of cooking is taking all the ingredients we have and putting them together, sometimes on instinct, sometimes from a recipe,” Father Jacques said. “If I’m going to make a sherried crab bisque, you’ve got to make the roux, you have to make the sauce, you have to sift it out – all those steps. That’s what I like about cooking – seeing it from the beginning and then seeing it come to an end.”
Born the youngest in a French-speaking family of eight children, Father Jacques was raised on a farm in the northern Maine hamlet of Caribou. His mother, who was widowed when Father Jacques was just 2, worked as a cook and housekeeper in the rectory of Caribou’s English-speaking Catholic church.
Father Jacques entered the Society of St. Edmund after graduating from high school, spending 14 years as a religious brother at the Edmundites’ seminary in Mystic, Conn.
He was sent to Trinity College and St. Michael’s College in Burlington, Vt., to earn his degree in social work and subsequently was assigned as director of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Mobile, specializing in adolescent counseling.
After discerning a call to celebrate Mass and administer the sacraments, he entered the Edmundites’ Toronto seminary and was ordained to the priesthood in 1982. He became pastor of St. Peter Claver in 1984, joining the local influx of Edmundites that also ministered at St. Philip the Apostle and St. Joseph the Worker parishes, and established Bishop Perry Middle School.
Father Michael was a member of the Clarion Herald's Board of Directors.