By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
Palm Sunday in New Orleans is steeped in tradition, in the warm promise of spring and in the solemn procession into churches of Massgoers holding shiny green sago palms to re-enact Jesus’ triumphant procession into Jerusalem.
This year, Palm Sunday will usher in another color (brown) and another size (skinny).
Because of an extended hard freeze in January, the sago palm fronds that usually are so plentiful in tropical New Orleans – and which Catholic churches rely on to harvest from parishioners’ yards for their Palm Sunday processions – are in extremely short supply, prompting many pastors to execute unprecedented backup plans.
“I am getting calls from some very concerned pastors,” said Betty-Ann Hickey, associate director of the archdiocesan Office of Worship. “I think the number is going to increase the closer we get to Palm Sunday.”
Flood of calls
Jeff Vega, whose family has operated the Church Supply House in Metairie since 1932, said he cannot recall in his 33 years at the store getting this many calls from priests in advance of Palm Sunday.
“It’s absolutely the most calls we’ve ever gotten,” Vega said, estimating he has placed orders to a Texas grower for 100,000 “palm strips” – narrow fronds that look like reeds.
Vega said the strips come in two lengths – 24 to 36 inches and 13 to 18 inches – and are moderately priced at about $14 per 100.
But purchasing the sago palms that Catholics in New Orleans are used to would require a third collection: they sell for about $20 for four.
“I haven’t developed a Plan B yet,” said Father Paul Desrosiers, pastor of Transfiguration of the Lord Church in New Orleans.
Asking parishioners for help
When Father Desrosiers announced at the end of Mass on March 4 about the potential shortfall in sago palms, he asked parishioners to call the church office if some of their plants survived the freeze. A parishioner who lives on the West Bank contacted him the next day.
“She says she has about 100 of them if we can find someone to cut them down,” Father Desrosiers said. “That won’t be enough. Growing up in Massachusetts, all we had were those little palm strips, but after being in New Orleans for so many years and using real palms, that seems like a poor excuse.”
Like the location of a good fishing hole, many priests are keeping the location of healthy palm fronds close to the vest: no poachers allowed.
Father Billy O’Riordan, the pastor of St. Ann Parish in Metairie, grew up in Ireland, where the tradition is to use the branches of the evergreen juniper tree for Palm Sunday.
Don’t have to be palms
The Roman Missal does not specify the type of branches to be used for Palm Sunday, but Hickey said “Paschale Solemnitatis,” the 1998 document on the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts from the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, specifies that palm or other branches may be used.
The blessed palms are burned after Palm Sunday, and the ashes are used for distribution on Ash Wednesday.
Even though Father O’Riordan is no fan of the skinny palm fronds – he calls them “those wimpy little strips” – he ordered extras just in case he can’t get enough sago branches. He also has a large juniper tree conveniently growing next to the parish office.
“Maybe I’ll chop the juniper tree down,” Father O’Riordan said, laughing. “Another lady called to say she has a thing like a ginger plant, and she told me to cancel the order of those skinny things. We’ll see.”
Wait’ll next year
Dan Gill, associate professor in consumer horticulture with the LSU AgCenter, hosts a Saturday morning garden show on WWL radio, and he knows better than anyone the bitter harvest that results when plants are shocked by a hard freeze.
Gill said the palm fronds most associated with Palm Sunday in New Orleans – the sago palms – are not really in the palm family at all.
“Sagos produce a very feathery like frond, but the sago palm is not a palm,” Gill said. “It’s related to the bald cypress and the pine tree. It’s not even distantly related to a true palm. When you see a sago plant bloom, the male reproductive structure looks like a pine cone.”
Gill said he feels the pain of pastors across south Louisiana.
“The approach I would take is to tell the priests to take those brown sago palms and paint them dark green, and no one would ever know the difference,” Gill said. “Once the frond is dead, it holds its shape well. I had a friend who was holding a big Christmas party, and he had two big sagos in front of his house that really looked ugly. He covered the crown and used dark green spray paint. It worked great.”
Palm strips for tourists
At St. Louis Cathedral, where Archbishop Gregory Aymond will celebrate Palm Sunday Mass at 11 a.m. on March 25, plans are being made to have as many sago palms as possible, but cathedral operations manager Maureen Scheuermann said she has ordered about 2,000 palm strips – not a big change from previous years.
“We have so many visitors who can’t take the big palms back in their suitcases, so we have a lot of the palm strips,” Scheuermann said. “In the past, when the pickings were slim, we’d just go hunt down the palm branches here and there, and every year, we usually have a pretty decent supply.”
“And,” she added, “there’s always spray paint.”
Father Rodney Bourg, pastor of Most Holy Trinity Parish in Covington, has reluctantly ordered palm strips.
“There ain’t no spring this year – we’re going right into summer,” Father Bourg said. “Usually, we end up having more palms than we know what to do with, but this year we’ll be grateful to get 50.”
Gill said the sagos will bounce back because “it really takes temperatures in the teens to brown sagos. In New Orleans, we were at 20, up or down a degree. In some areas, the sagos are completely brown; in some cases brown and green. But they’re all still alive.”
Queen palms – real palms – are a different story. Many of them were killed in the freeze.
“I am very optimistic that the sagos all survived,” Gill said. “You have to get temperatures close to 10 degrees to kill sagos.”
But for this year, be prepared for something different on Palm Sunday. “I think in previous years it was one palm per person,” Hickey said. “This year, it might be one palm per family.”
Peter Finney Jr. may be reached at email@example.com.