By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
Clarence Acosta is 94 years old. His next project is cracking the concrete that forms the base of his carport so that he can repair a 50-year-old buried sewer line that hasn’t been cooperating lately. All he needs is a little more time.
The self-made plumber, who retired in 1991 as a jack-of-all-trades at BP Oil, doesn’t have hobbies like golf or playing cards or going to the movies. What he does have is a love for the Catholic Church that started when he was a boy growing up in Algiers.
In the teeth of the Great Depression, when Acosta was hauling ice in a wheelbarrow to a neighborhood bar in Algiers for $2 a week, he would be the only one of 11 brothers and sisters to walk the 10 blocks to Holy Name of Mary Church for Mass on Sunday.
“I don’t know why,” Acosta says, “but I just made up my mind to go to church every Sunday.”
He was 17 when he joined the Marines during WWII, signing up for the duration. “I went to Pearl Harbor and then to Midway, waiting to invade Japan,” Acosta said, counting himself fortunate that the war ended before he had to go into combat, island-to-island.
Shortly after returning from the Pacific, Acosta married Doris Chisholm, the girl he had grown up with on Brooklyn Avenue in Algiers. Since he had made his First Communion and confirmation at Holy Name of Mary, that’s the church where they married and where he began picking up the collection every Sunday.
Never missed church
Acosta eventually moved to Belle Chasse, building three houses in his spare time – one for himself, one for his brother and another for his sister. He attended Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Belle Chasse for many years.
“Even when I was working below Belle Chasse in Boothville and other places, I’d stop at churches on my way home and be all dirty, but I’d go to church,” Acosta said. “I’d stop at the church at Jesuit Bend. Nobody ever complained because they knew I was coming from work.”
Finally, Acosta gave up going to church at Our Lady of Perpetual Help because, invariably, he would cross the Intracoastal Waterway for Mass and then find the bridge stuck in the up position going home.
That’s when he decided to make his home at St. Joseph Church and Shrine on the West Bank, where he has been a Gretna fixture for more than 30 years.
He got to know Father Francis Carabello, the long-time, former pastor, who knew a good thing when he saw it. Acosta could fix anything – “I can’t remember anything I couldn’t do” – and at St. Joseph, things had a way of breaking down at the most inopportune times.
“When I first started coming there, he asked me to help out with St. Joseph’s Day, and after that, he started giving me all kinds of stuff,” Acosta said. “When he found out I was a plumber, I fixed all kinds of things for him. I changed his water heater and fixed leaks in different faucets. One time they wanted to charge him $3,000 to replace a kitchen mixer that had a 40- or 50-horsepower motor. I fixed it, and it cost something like 60 bucks.”
When Acosta retired, he had even more time, and he began serving in a role that he says is even more fulfilling. Nearly every day – unless he has a cold or a cough that he might spread – Acosta will drive three miles to St. Joseph Church and serve at the altar for the 12:10 p.m. Mass. He wears a white alb. On Sundays, he will process in and out of the church as the cross-bearer. He can still genuflect as well as the kids.
“I tell you what, I’ve never seen people like this in all my life,” Acosta said. “When I go outside with the cross after Mass, there’s always somebody who wants to know my name. They tell me, ‘We appreciate everything you’re doing.’ One lady called me an angel.”
Acosta has outlived his wife Doris, who died five years ago, and all of his siblings. One of his two sons was shot and killed in 1995 when he was 40, and no one was apprehended for the shooting.
Loves the Eucharist
What Acosta lives for is the Eucharist. When he’s not serving at the altar, he is an extraordinary minister of holy Communion. He also has coached several children in the ways of properly serving at the altar.
“I’ve trained about 10 to 15 of them, but some of them aren’t here anymore because they’re teenagers and they’ve got a girlfriend and they go to their girlfriend’s church,” Acosta said. “One boy started about two months ago, and he had never served, but every time he comes at the 11:30 (Sunday) Mass I help him out, and he’s real thankful.”
As a veteran, Acosta has committed to memory the liturgical idiosyncrasies of every priest he serves, and he tries to help the younger altar servers understand why it’s important to go the extra mile.
“Actually, during the whole Mass, I try to encourage them to do it the way I do it,” Acosta said. “Sometimes, their minds wander and they’re looking here and there. I tell them to pay attention to what the priest is doing.
“When the priest is going to read the prayers, I’ve got it set for him so that he doesn’t have to turn the page. I show them how to put the cloth on their arm. Father Gary (Copping) likes to use a pitcher and bowl to wash his hands. The rest of them like to dip their fingers in the bowl. Father (Patrick) Gannon uses his own book and chalice on the altar, and he doesn’t want the big host to be mixed in the bowl with the smaller hosts. Father Carabello’s got his own ways, too. He’s from the old school.”
Lean on me
Father Tony White always requested that Acosta be his server, especially as his health was beginning to fail prior to his death in 2016.
“I had to help him when he got to the podium – he wouldn’t take a chance to walk unless I held him – and I would bring him back to his chair,” Acosta said. “He wrote a letter of appreciation to me for everything I did.”
For Acosta, the most important part of the Mass, is “whenever the priest raises the host and the chalice.”
“I ring the bells three times,” Acosta said. “I try to follow whatever they do at the cathedral.”
One of his private prayers is for a family member whom he would love to see
return to church. The family member has come several times but has difficulty dealing with crowds.
“I’m still after him,” Acosta said. “I’d love him to come to Mass every Sunday.”
All Acosta needs is a little more time.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.