St. Ann devotion celebrated at Ursulines Avenue shrine

The New Orleans devotion to St. Ann, the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary, dates to 1852 when the first St. Ann Catholic Parish was established at St. Philip and Roman streets, where St. Peter Claver Church is today. A novena in her honor began a year later in 1853, according to Clarion Herald archives.

While the original church, a second St. Ann Church with a shrine on St. Philip Street and the last St. Ann Church on Ursulines Avenue no longer exist, the St. Ann shrine built in 1926 at 2101 Ursulines Ave. remains open.

Father John Agyekum, a visiting priest from the Diocese of Obuasi in Ghana, celebrated the feast day Mass for St. Ann and St. Joachim July 26. He said we could learn how to be better parents from the saints who raised Mary.

This year, on the July 26 feast day of Sts. Joachim and Ann, more than 50 people attended a Mass, prayed the rosary and novena at the shrine in honor of St. Ann.  It was the final day of a Triduum to celebrate St. Ann. Father John Agyekum, a visiting priest from the Diocese of Obuasi in Ghana, celebrated the feast day Mass.

“They were privileged by God to be the human family of Mary,” Father Agyekum said in welcome, referring to Mary’s parents, Sts. Ann and Joachim. “Let us pray that through their intercession we may exercise the gifts and divine role that we have to protect and take care for our family and our community.”

He said all Christians can take away something relevant by reflecting on the lives of St. Ann and St. Joachim. God privileged them to be the parents of Mary, and they took good care of her so she could accept being the mother of Jesus.

“We are to imitate the lives of these parents,” Father Agyekum said, asking Catholics to ponder God’s many gifts and pass on the faith to the next generation.

“What can we bequeath to our children – the next generation – so they can lead their lives to praise God?” Father Agyekum asked. 

History of the shrine

In the mid-1970s, a Catholic church parish in Metairie – first founded as St. Ambrose –  had a name change to St. Ann when its church was built. It, too, has a shrine and conducts St. Ann novenas. As Mass attendance continued to dwindle at St. Ann Parish in New Orleans’ Treme, the Archdiocese of the New Orleans closed the church in 1995. But, the Ursulines Avenue shrine remained open three days a week with various people maintaining it. 

Jackie Gibson, the current shrine caretaker, said Emily Ricard O’Brien took care of the shrine for many years before Hurricane Katrina, and “she was there when we reopened the shrine several years after Katrina.”

O’Brien, who died in 2016, lived across Ursuline Street from the shrine and cared for it from about 1995 until Katrina hit in 2005.

After O’Brien, Ms. Henri Reed was hired through St. Peter Claver Parish to care for the gate-enclosed shrine, which features several statues of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and statues of St. Ann, St. Joseph and a grotto where the faithful can climb steps for special intentions, following the Stations of the Cross to a beautiful crucifix of Jesus (that can be seen from above the grotto at street level). 

Gibson, who has lived in the senior apartments carved out of the former St. Ann Church, said she is motivated to keep the shrine open in her lifelong neighborhood.

“I’ve listened to so many stories how, when people climbed the steps (on their knees) or just walked through the gate, there was peace and serenity,” Gibson said. “If you hear people’s stories and know they need prayer, there needed to be someone to keep it open. God does everything for me. My life has been so blessed … I am thankful.” 

Every devotion different

Those at the shrine July 26 came for various reasons.

Royal Benetrix attended school at St. Ann on Ursulines Avenue, which closed in 1969, and remembered a family-oriented neighborhood. When he recently retired as an electrician, he began volunteering with Gibson. He recently helped repair lights that illuminate the shrine at night, pressure washed and repainted statues and trimmed trees and weeds with his friend Annie Chiasson, her daughter Cynthia and others.

“I came back because I heard they needed help,” Benetrix said. “We’re hoping one day to get the money to repair what’s needed. When you get older, you want to go back to your childhood.”

Marion Ann Henry, who led the feast-day rosary, said it was her childhood neighborhood, too. She enjoys attending the feast day devotion annually. How could she not with a middle name of Ann?

“I love this place,” said Jeanne Ker, originally from Haiti, and a shrine devotee for more than 20 years. “In my country, St. Ann is all over. St. Ann is a good saint. When I had problems back in Haiti after my husband died, I prayed to St. Ann and asked her to bring me and my kids to the United States. And we got here.”

She also prayed to St. Ann to get her mother to United States. “After three months, they called my mom with a visa. Anything I ask, it comes true. It’s a miracle.” 

Anna Dalmas Larche said she prayed at the shrine often as a young girl and returns now on the feast day to pay homage. She vividly remembers her aunt, Vernita Williams, praying daily for nearly four years at the shrine for the safekeeping of her godchild, Louis Dalmas (Anna’s brother) while he served during World War II.

“She came every day, even with ailments, the whole time my brother was in the service. She never missed a day,” Larche said. “My brother told me that her prayers kept him from harm, that he believed St. Ann was the cause of his coming back.” 

The volunteer committee ended the feast day with light refreshments, sandwiches and snacks and distributed holy water, a St. Ann prayer card and rosary.

The shrine, located at 2101 Ursulines Ave., New Orleans, is open on Tuesday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon, with a novena every Tuesday at 10 a.m. 

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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