By Peter Finney Jr.
It has been 200 years since the Vincentian Fathers – the Congregation of the Mission – came to the United States from Italy to establish a seminary in the Louisiana Territory at Perryville, Missouri, the first institution of higher learning west of the Mississippi River.
The local Vincentian community will celebrate that bicentennial Sept. 27 with a 5 p.m. Mass celebrated by former Archbishop Alfred Hughes at St. Joseph Church, 1802 Tulane Ave., New Orleans. All members of the Vincentian family – clergy, religious and laity – and the general public are invited to attend.
The homily will be delivered by Vincentian Father John Rybolt, a scholar-in-residence at DePaul University in Chicago who has written a seven-volume global history of the Vincentian community dating back to its beginnings in 1625.
At the Mass, the Vincentians also will announce the establishment of a scholarship at Xavier University of Louisiana through a $100,000 gift by the Vincentians’ Western Province. Annual $10,000 scholarships will be awarded until the funds are fully dispersed. The intention is to target students who have done well in their first few years of studies but then encounter financial difficulties completing their college education, said Vincentian Father Louis Arceneaux.
“All of us are concerned about reaching out to the African-American community, so we thought about a scholarship,” Father Arceneaux said.
Bishop DuBourg’s groundwork
The Vincentians’ early history in the U.S. is complex. They arrived between 1816 and 1818. After hearing Vincentian Father Felix De Andreis deliver a homily in Italy, New Orleans Bishop William DuBourg originally invited the Vincentians to come to the U.S. to establish a seminary in the lower part of the Louisiana Purchase territory.
Bishop DuBourg changed his mind on the location before the group left France in 1816, and the Vincentians founded St. Mary’s of the Barrens Seminary in Perryville, near St. Louis, in 1818. The seminary was intended to offer priestly formation for both Vincentian and diocesan priests.
After the Diocese of St. Louis was carved out of the larger Diocese of Louisiana in 1824, Vincentian Father Leo DeNeckere was named bishop of New Orleans in 1829 and consecrated at St. Louis Cathedral in 1830. At 30, he was the youngest U.S. bishop and the first bishop of New Orleans to be consecrated at the cathedral. Bishop DeNeckere died of yellow fever in 1833 and was the first bishop to be buried in the sanctuary of the cathedral.
Early seminary ministry
After Bishop Antoine Blanc was installed in 1835, he asked the Vincentians to establish St. Vincent of Paul Seminary near Donaldsonville in 1838, where the Vincentians already were staffing a parish. After that seminary was destroyed in an 1855 fire, the diocese established St. Vincent de Paul Seminary adjacent to St. Stephen’s Church on Napoleon Avenue in New Orleans. That seminary closed after the Civil War in 1867.
In 1900, the Vincentians opened another seminary – St. Louis Diocesan Seminary – in the same location, but it lasted only seven years.
The early Vincentians also ministered in parishes in Opelousas, Grand Coteau, Donaldsonville, Paincourtville, Plattenville and Thibodaux. In 1849, they were the priests originally assigned to St. Stephen’s (now Good Shepherd Parish), and the Daughters of Charity assumed the staffing of the parish school in 1878.
The Daughters of Charity also staffed St. Joseph Academy for girls from 1863-1909, when the two schools were combined and renamed St. Stephen Parochial School for Boys and Girls. The Brothers of Mary ran a high school for boys until 1925, and the high school for girls lasted until 1966. St. Stephen School still operates as a parochial school.
After Katrina, the Vincentians handed over the administration of St. Stephen Parish to the Archdiocese of New Orleans in 2006.
The Vincentians also staffed St. Joseph Church in 1858, 14 years after it was established, and they are still there today with a broad mission to serve a diverse community, including the poor and homeless.
The Vincentians established a boys’ school there in 1859 and a girls’ school in 1864, run by the Daughters of Charity. A new, larger church on Tulane Avenue was dedicated in 1892, and the smaller church became St. Katherine’s in 1895 to serve African Americans. That church was torn down in 1964.
Vincentian priests served at St. Louise de Marillac in Arabi from 1964-79. They also built and staffed St. Henry Parish from 1865-71 before handing it over to the Redemptorists.
St. Joseph Church
There are three Vincentian priests currently serving in the archdiocese: Father Thomas Stehlik is pastor of St. Joseph Church, and Fathers Arceneaux and Louis Franz are senior priests serving in a variety of ministries.
Father Stehlik said his parish “has brought people from all walks of life together.”
“St. Vincent de Paul’s key to conversion was to read the Gospel in light of the experience of people who are suffering, and it really changed his whole viewpoint,” Father Stehlik said. “Jesus’ words spoke to him loudly. At St. Joseph, people who normally would not be in the same room not only appreciate doing that but also feel that God is speaking to them deeply.”
Accompanying the poor
The Rebuild Center, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary on Sept. 29, began when Vincentian Father Perry Henry offered a parcel of land in the St. Joseph Church parking lot for a homeless ministry in collaboration with the Jesuits and the Presentation Sisters.
Collaboration has been the key to the homeless ministry’s success, Father Stehlik and Father Arceneaux said. Daughter of Charity Sister Kathleen Driscoll is head of the local Depaul-USA’s transportation and housing ministry at the Rebuild Center.
The center, located across the street from the LSU Health Sciences Center, has developed closes ties with doctors, nurses and medical students.
“We have really emphasized collaboration,” Father Arceneaux said. “We don’t all need to do separate things.”
The Vincentians also support Hotel Hope, a residence for homeless women with their children. An arbitrator will rule soon on FEMA reimbursement to transform the former St. Matthias Convent into a residence that could house women and children.
St. Joseph Church also hosts two annual retreats – for men and women – in which the participants study, pray and sleep overnight in the church, with an emphasis on forming small faith communities after the weekend.
“The idea of the weekend is to give people a closer relationship with Jesus,” Father Stehlik said. “We focus on the love of Jesus. We talk about three things: where have I encountered the presence of God; what have I done practically to further the kingdom of God; and is there something I want to give thanks for in how people support me? The first step of evangelization is to have your heart set on fire for Jesus.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.