By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary
Capuchin Franciscan Father Teodoro Agudo is 89, well past the normal retirement age for members of his congregation in Spain and for priests serving in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
But as Father Agudo talks passionately about his little jewel of a church adjacent to the Warehouse District – 170-year-old St. Theresa of Avila – his eyes brighten in light of what he has seen in his 49 years of service at the church, the last 45 as pastor.
“I have been able to keep up the church even with all the problems that we’ve had with the lack of resources,” Father Agudo said. “When people come here they say, ‘Oh, you have such a beautiful church,’ and I say, ‘Yes, and it’s an oldie. So, don’t be afraid of getting old. Just take care of yourself!’”
Father Agudo, who grew up in the village of Villapadierna, Spain, in the 2,000-year-old Roman Province of Leon, is putting the finishing touches on his nearly half-century of priestly ministry in New Orleans. On Sept. 8, he will concelebrate a Mass at St. Theresa with Archbishop Gregory Aymond in honor of the 170th anniversary of the church and his farewell to a Capuchin Franciscan residence in Madrid.
St. Theresa of Avila Church was built in 1848, making it, depending on who is doing the forensic analysis, the second-oldest church in the archdiocese next to St. Patrick on Camp Street, which dates to 1840.
Yes, Mass has been celebrated continuously on the spot occupied by St. Louis Cathedral since 1727, but the cathedral was largely rebuilt in 1851, giving St. Theresa some grounds to win a Catholic bar bet.
Father Agudo had a running conversation with former Archbishop Alfred Hughes about the two churches’ histories one day, and they came to an agreement using “Solomon’s wisdom.”
“The archbishop said St. Theresa might be a few years older than one half of the cathedral, but the other half of the cathedral might say it’s older than all of you,” Father Agudo said, laughing. “That is the solution.”
Father Agudo arrived in New Orleans in 1969 in part because of the Cuban revolution. When Fidel Castro imposed his communist rule in Cuba, the 20 Capuchin Franciscans from Spain who had been serving in Cuba were expelled, and their superior decided to send them first to Miami “in case something like that might also happen in Venezuela so that our priests there would have a place to go.”
Father Agudo went initially from Spain to Miami in 1968, but since by then there were enough Spanish-speaking priests for the area, his community then asked Archbishop Philip Hannan if the Capuchins could serve in New Orleans.
“The archbishop gave us St. Theresa to take care of without any contract,” Father Agudo said. “We could go when we wanted to or he could tell us to go when he wanted to. It was just like that.”
That handshake lasted nearly 50 years. Along the way, Father Agudo has preserved the church inside and out, overcoming fire and water.
“They say at one time we had 2,000 families, but as an old parishioner told me, ‘Father, it doesn’t matter how many families we had, we’ve always been a poor parish,’” Father Agudo said. “When I came here, the church was falling apart – the whole thing. The roof, the paint. I think the church looks much different from the church in 1969.”
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina blew in the large stained-glass window over the altar, and Father Agudo said what happened next was “a true miracle.”
“There is only a little space between the window and the altar, but the altar was not damaged,” he said.
Father Agudo commissioned a new stained-glass window, and the image on the window depicts the scene in which St. Theresa of Avila meets the child Jesus in the garden. St. Theresa at first thought the child was a nephew of one of the sisters.
“Jesus asked, ‘What is your name, lady?’” Father Agudo said. “And she said, ‘My name is Theresa of Jesus. And, what is your name, little boy?’ And he answered, ‘My name is Jesus de Theresa.’”
While Archbishop Hannan invited the Capuchins to staff St. Theresa of Avila and offer the first Spanish Mass in the archdiocese, he made it clear the parish would not be a Hispanic parish but rather serve the Hispanic population.
It stayed alive even after an initial report from the “Catholic Life: 2000” planning process recommended its closure. Part of the reason it remained open is that Father Agudo promised to stay on as pastor for as long as he could, and he is still here, 18 years later. Father Roman Burgos, a native of Mexico, will assume the pastorate on July 2.
Love for St. Michael’s kids
In addition to his pastor’s duties, Father Agudo has regularly celebrated Mass for the students of St. Michael Special School. School Sister of Notre Dame Lillian McCormack, St. Michael’s founder, told him he did not have to deliver a homily at those Masses. Just his presence was enough.
“When they go out after Mass, they thank me and I just tap them on the head,” Father Agudo said.
One of Father Agudo’s final projects is to fund additional repair work on St. Theresa’s pipe organ, which he has been told is “the oldest pipe organ still working” in the metropolitan New Orleans area. It is believed to date to the late 19th century.
“It was probably not new when it was installed, so if it was second-hand, we don’t know when it came here,” Father Agudo said. “Some of the wood is falling apart, and it will cost $5,000 to repair it. When you are getting old, everything starts falling apart.”
But Father Agudo is still standing tall.
Asked about his secret of longevity, Father Agudo said, “I don’t do anything – I just take it easy.”
“That’s another thing,” Father Agudo said, smiling. “When they tell you that you’ve got to do exercise … exercise – all of those people who do a lot of exercise have died before I did. You have to understand, we have a mechanism, and if you force the mechanism to do too much, it’s not good. The same as a car. If you force it to do too much, it goes down. The more exercise you force on the heart, the easier it is to fall apart.”
Father Agudo has hardly done that.
“I have felt embraced here in New Orleans,” he said. “I feel maybe I could have done something more in some other place than St. Theresa, but doing something for the people around here is a good feeling.”
The farewell Mass for Father Agudo and the 170th anniversary of the church will be held Sept. 8 at 4 p.m., with a reception to follow at St. Michael Special School.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.