By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
Given its historic ties with the Catholic Church, the City of New Orleans opened its Tricentennial celebration Jan. 7 in the only way possible – with a Mass celebrated by the Archbishop of New Orleans at St. Louis Cathedral.
New Orleans turns 300 years old this year, and since 1718, Mass has been celebrated uninterrupted near the spot of the city’s founding, the place where St. Louis Cathedral now stands as the symbol of one of the world’s great cities.
As the archdiocese and the American Italian Cultural Center unveiled a marble statue commemorating St. John Paul II’s historic visit to New Orleans in 1987, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu touched on the reality of the Catholic Church’s inseparable role in the city’s founding and in its history.
Church, city side by side
“The history of the City of New Orleans and the history of the Catholic Church cannot be separated,” Landrieu told hundreds, including Archbishop Gregory Aymond, in front of St. Louis Cathedral following the Tricentennial-opening Mass. “From the beginning of our time, the government of New Orleans and the Catholic Church have made this walk together.”
Landrieu thanked Archbishop Aymond for the church’s willingness to help the city “celebrate the Tricentennial in the most glorious way possible by remembering the fullness and the totality of our history” and also by working together to relieve social conditions such as “violence, hatred and racism and all the other challenges that cities like the City of New Orleans have.”
Welcoming the children
The statue of St. John Paul II, created by sculptor Franco Alessandrini, occupies a spot to the right of the cathedral’s main entrance. Made of glistening, white, Carrara marble, the 6-foot statue depicts Pope John Paul II welcoming two children, a sign of his love for the young church, Alessandrini said.
“We continue to give thanks to God for 300 years of his great blessings to us, to our city and to all that we represent,” Archbishop Aymond said before blessing the statue. “One of the great blessings throughout these 300 years was the visit of St. John Paul II, who stood right here and also preached in our cathedral. We thank God for him, recognizing that he, along with the other saints who walked the streets of New Orleans, gives us an example of what it means to be close to the Lord, live our faith and evangelize the world.”
The Tricentennial Mass attracted anoverflow crowd to the cathedral, which echoed at the recessional with the sounds of “Thanks Be to God,” with lyrics by James Behan Jr., which won a Tricentennial hymn competition sponsored by the archdiocesan Office of Worship.The opening lines of the hymn, which was practiced before the Mass, are as follows: “Gathered here for many centuries/ by the river, Lord we pray/ As You have and will forever/ bless Your people here this day.”
In his homily, Archbishop Aymond used the Feast of the Epiphany to illustrate how God used the Magi to manifest the messiah to the entire world.
“It was God’s intent through that story, through the Magi, that the savior, the messiah of the world, would be known ultimately by the whole world,” the archbishop said. “Apparently, it is that same God who also wanted his Son to be known in New Orleans.”
Deep Catholic history
Archbishop Aymond noted how even before the founding of the city, missionary Catholic priests ministered in this area, celebrating the Eucharist. The first wave of women religious – the Ursuline Sisters – arrived in 1727, nine years after the city’s founding, to establish the country’s first school for girls.
Recalling all the challenges that New Orleans has faced in its history – natural disasters, yellow fever epidemics, fires and wars – the archbishop said the saints who walked the streets of New Orleans and the Catholics who practiced their faith “shaped the city and the church into what it is today.”
“As we open this Tricentennial year, we certainly give thanks to God for the past,” he said. “We are grateful for the great City of New Orleans and for its history. We are grateful for the influence that the
Catholic Church has had in the development of this great city.
“That is the past, but let us not forget, as we celebrate this Tricentennial, that the future is in our hands. We must be zealous and enthusiastic and evangelize like the founding mothers and fathers. We are ordinary people with ordinary gifts who can do extraordinary things for God and for our city.”
Alessandrini, the sculptor, said he was happy to be a part of helping the church and the city celebrate its 300th birthday with the St. John Paul II statue.
“I think I put whatever I got into it and tried to make a nice work,” Alessandrini said.
“I have two hopes for the statue,” said Frank Maselli, chairman of the American Italian Cultural Center, “that 300 years from now, the church and the statue will still be here, and just as St. John Paul II inspired people when he was here, I hope that this statue will inspire a lot of ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.