By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
In oak-friendly Covington, where leaves are good and chainsaws are bad, the horticultural metaphor Archbishop Gregory Aymond used March 4 in describing the 175th anniversary of St. Peter Parish aptly described the growth and the solid roots of the Catholic faith fostered by the first Catholic parish on the northshore.
Established in 1843 by Bishop Antoine Blanc – who seven years later became the first archbishop of New Orleans – St. Peter now is home to 3,000 registered parishioners, 70 active ministries, a 774-student school, a perpetual, eucharistic adoration chapel open to adorers throughout the area and, with an eye to the future, lots of Catholic babies in strollers or in their parents’ arms.
Archbishop Aymond said he often “marvels” at the four oak trees, about 80 years old, that provide ample shade in front of his residence in New Orleans, and he used that image to reflect on the expansion of the Catholic faith from the establishment of St. Peter in 1843.
“Today, we remember not the seeds or the growth of the oak trees, but we remember with much gratitude that God planted the seeds of faith on the northshore 175 years ago,” Archbishop Aymond told the congregation at the Mass of Thanksgiving. “This parish was built on the west bluff of the Bogue Falaya River. The seeds of faith that God planted became deeply rooted and grew, and a sturdy tree was formed.”
Three churches in its history
St. Peter has had three churches in the last 175 years, said Father Otis Young, pastor since 2012. The first was a wooden building on the river, followed in 1892 by a new church and rectory built by Father Joseph Koegerl on the corner of Rutland and Massachusetts streets.
When St. Peter built a new brick church in 1940 under the pastorate of Benedictine Father Aemillian Egler, the previous church was dedicated as Holy Family Parish for African-American Catholics.
“The family became divided,” Archbishop Aymond said, who noted that Holy Family Church and School remained open until the 1960s, when Holy Family reunited with St. Peter to form one community.
“St. Peter and Holy Family – what a blessing,” he said. “Today, this church remains a symbol of that unified, one family.”
To highlight that unity, St. Peter Parish recently installed a statue of the Holy Family in a niche near the front door – opposite a similar statue of St. Peter. Archbishop Aymond blessed both statues after Communion, praying that the statues “remind us always of (God’s) goodness, our journey as a parish and our unity as a parish family. May they inspire us to call upon St. Peter and the Holy Family to intercede for us in our personal families and our parish family … so that we can share the goodness of (God’s) love within us beyond the walls of this church for centuries to come.”
Benedictines for 76 years
Benedictine Abbot Justin Brown and Benedictine Father Michael Jung, pastor of St. Peter from 1987-92, concelebrated the Mass of Thanksgiving. The archbishop thanked Abbot Justin for the Benedictines’ 76-year service at St. Peter from 1916-92. Also attending were Father Bill McGough, 89, pastor of St. Peter from 1992-2009.
Father McGough, who uses a walker, remained in the sanctuary after the Mass, where he greeted a long receiving line of former parishioners.
“The old-timers were very good and built a solid foundation, and we really started growing,” Father McGough said. “Like in any community, when you have people with skills – like the archbishop said, when you plant the seed, it grows. I was very satisfied seeing the growth over the years.”
Father McGough said the laity deserve much of the credit for the parish’s flourishing.
“You don’t just start a ministry and hope it will fly; it won’t,” Father McGough said. “You need people who are interested and who want to get involved and who are gifted. We had people with wonderful gifts who could invigorate others and share that sense of purpose and commitment with those around them.
“When you have good people, you need good leadership. Nothing’s going to happen, in Washington or here, unless you’ve got leadership. People here are not working for themselves but for the community. They are very generous, and they set the pace.”
Seedbed of vocations
Father Young said he especially gives thanks to the Blessed Mother for her “mantle of protection” over the parish. He mentioned in recent years, the parish has been the home of many vocations to the priesthood and religious life: Father Beau Charbonnet (ordained in 2003), Father Daniel Brouillette (2009), Father Garrett O’Brien (2012) and Father Colin Braud (2013); the late Deacon Rusty Read, Deacon Dennis Adams and Deacon Jay Frantz; and Family of Jesus Sister Agnes Maria Burvant, who serves as a missionary in Peru.
Six other members of the parish are in religious formation: Transitional Deacon David Frank, seminarians Andrew Rudmann and Daniel Doescher; Don Roberts, a candidate for the permanent diaconate; and Sister Marie Elizabeth Jerry, the Sisters of the Holy Family, and Sister Emmanuel, a Discalced Carmelite.
“I can assure you there are several men and women (in St. Peter Parish) who are being called to priesthood and religious life, and you can identify them,” Archbishop Aymond told the congregation.
“For the past, we give profound thanks to God,” the archbishop said. “For the future, we trust in God’s care, that as he led you, he will continue to do so.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.