Tricentennial Thursday: Sacred carvings incorporate local seafood favorite

By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald, River of Faith

The characteristically humble Landry Dempster becomes even more so when asked about the stunning results of his artistry on display inside St. Gertrude Church in Des Allemands.

About 20 years ago, Dempster, a gifted woodcarver, completed three major pieces of church furniture for St. Gertrude’s sanctuary:

  • An oak lectionary embossed with tupelo-wood carvings of the Alpha and the Omega;
  • A 4 1/2-foot-wide oak pulpit;
  • And a cypress stand for St. Gertrude’s tabernacle, completed at the request of Father Benedict Joseph Quang, the church’s then-pastor.

On the face of this tabernacle stand – below traditional Christian images of the cross, grapes, wheat, the chalice and the paten – is a pair of gray-painted catfish Dempster carved out of tupelo wood.

The catfish, a nod to Des Allemands’ standing as “The Catfish Capital of the World,” were specifically requested by Father Quang. The priest told Dempster that no other type of fish but catfish would suffice for his new tabernacle stand. He would even tell his flock: “Y’all can come look at everything we have in the church, but do not touch my fish!

Sadly, Father Quang died before he was able to articulate his complete vision for Dempster’s final carving assignment: St. Gertrude’s generously proportioned pulpit. The priest left behind only two general instructions: the dimensions of the piece; and a request that the pulpit include carvings of angels.

“The angels,” Dempster sighed, pointing to the pulpit’s trio of cherubs, each of which required 75 to 100 hours to carve. “That was the hardest (part).” 

Fish are featured prominently in Catholic art and architecture, given their significance in the New Testament. The fish – or ichthus – is one of the most universally recognizable symbols of Jesus.

How are fish portrayed in your parish church? Email Beth Donze at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

Click here to view the Clarion Herald flipbook, “River of Faith: 300 Years as a New Orleans Catholic Community – 1718-2018”

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