By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
Gordon Stevens was in a fitting location when he received word he’d been chosen by The Catholic Foundation as the recipient of this year’s St. John Paul II Award.
Stevens was in Poland – the homeland of the award’s pontifical namesake – unbeknownst to the person who was phoning him with the happy news: Archbishop Gregory Aymond.
“When (the archbishop) found out I was in Poland he said, ‘I guess it was meant to be,’” laughed Stevens, a 39-year parishioner of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Metairie and longtime volunteer for Catholic causes ranging from respect-life issues to helping to end the cycle of poverty in New Orleans.
Stevens, the president and CEO of New Orleans Steamboat Company, Gray Line New Orleans and Café Beignet restaurants, will be honored at The Catholic Foundation’s Oct. 11 dinner (see below for more information on this event).
The award is presented annually to a layperson or permanent deacon who is an inspirational example of Christian stewardship, has an outstanding record of volunteer service and demonstrates exemplary values.
“It’s very humbling,” Stevens said of the honor. “(Our Catholic faith) gives a meaning and purpose to life. The older we get, we realize how short our time is here. I don’t know where the years went – I’m 69 now. Compared to eternity, this is a drop in the bucket. Our faith is there, giving us a path to hopefully get to heaven.”
Family life, career blossom
Stevens grew up in Harahan as the oldest of six children, serving his home parish of St. Rita as an altar boy and attending St. Rita Elementary and Archbishop Rummel High. His childhood pastimes included catching turtles and snakes in the wooded batture of the nearby Mississippi River.
“Jefferson Highway was one lane in each direction with dairy farms all over,” recalled Stevens, who was raised by his mother and grandparents after his father’s death in 1959, when Stevens was just 10. “It was such a rural area that sometimes they had to keep the kids in school after the dismissal bell because the cows would be walking by the classroom windows.”
Stevens earned an accounting degree at Loyola and joined the U.S. Naval Air Reserves, but left with something even more precious than a diploma: a girlfriend named Ann, a student at Dominican College, whom he’d met on a blind date. Married for 43 years, the couple has seven children ranging in age from 42 to 24, and 11 grandchildren.
“I proposed to Ann in front of the crèche – the Nativity scene – at St. Louis Cathedral,” Stevens said, smiling. “And she said yes.”
In 1976, after a few years at a local CPA firm, Stevens spied an ad in the Times-Picayune for the controller’s position at a newly formed excursion vessel enterprise called the New Orleans Steamboat Company. He got the job, working his way up in just two years to general manager. Stevens became a partner and the company’s CEO and president in 1995.
The storied vessels under his oversight have included the company’s current flagship boat – The Natchez – as well as The Cotton Blossom, The Mark Twain and The John James Audubon, which until Hurricane Katrina ferried passengers between the CBD and Audubon Zoo.
The President, purchased by New Orleans Steamboat in 1981 and a popular concert venue for a generation of New Orleanians, was later sold and retrofitted as a riverboat casino in Dubuque, Iowa. It was disassembled by a subsequent owner whose plans to use it for lake cruises never materialized.
“It’s in a corn field in Iowa in pieces, rusting away,” Stevens said.
City ‘opens up’ on river
A veteran member of the Chamber of Commerce, numerous tourism-related boards and a former president of the National Passenger Vessel Owners Association, Stevens said the river that has shaped New Orleans from its founding also figures prominently in its appeal to today’s tourists: travelers list the Mississippi as one of their “must-sees” when they come to town. New Orleans is the No. 2 wedding destination after Las Vegas, with The Natchez alone hosting more than 200 weddings annually, Stevens said.
And while 90 percent of those who take Natchez river cruises are tourists, Stevens said locals who come aboard often are surprised by the adventure and beauty right on their doorstep.
“You’re in the midst of Downtown, in the heat and in the confined areas of the French Quarter, but then you get out on the river and everything opens up,” Stevens said. “It’s fresh. You see boats from all over the world passing by, the seagulls. It’s a whole different environment that many people don’t appreciate or go see.”
Stevens said his favorite part of river cruises is the sight of New Orleans as the boat loops back to the French Quarter from Chalmette.
“(The steamboat) is coming back upriver around Algiers Point at about 8:30-ish – many times of the year that’s right at sunset, with the sun setting behind the skyline,” he said. “A lot of (marriage) proposals have taken place at that time.”
Always willing to serve
Stevens has generously brought his business, fundraising and public relations acumen to a dizzying number of boards and fundraisers, including those for the Sisters of the Holy Family, the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Woman’s New Life Center, St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans Medical Missions and the Southern Province of the Jesuits. His honors include the “Defender of Life” award from the Woman’s New Life Center, co-received with Ann Stevens; “Volunteer of the Year” from the St. Elizabeth’s Guild; “Role Model of the Year” from the Young Leadership Council; and the St. Louis Medallion, in recognition of service to his home parish of St. Catherine.
Stevens has been a board member of The Catholic Foundation for 18 years, serving as its president in 2015, and is a founding member and former president of Legatus, a member of the Men’s Prayer group of Regnum Christi, the Catholic Men’s Fellowship Core Team and the Knights of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
Reaches out to poor, outcast
Stevens said he is always looking for ways to offer his companies’ services to Catholic outreach efforts.
In addition to chartering special cruises for priests and seminarians, The Natchez sponsors and hosts the annual jazz cruise benefiting the Society of St. Vincent of Paul, with most of the proceeds going to the Society’s free New Orleans pharmacy.
When Stevens learned that finding solid employment was one of the main obstacles faced by Covenant House residents on the road to independent living, he helped set up a program in which New Orleans Steamboat hires promising Covenant House residents for jobs on The Natchez. About 40 residents have been employed over the years, Stevens said.
“We’re the largest employer of those kids in town,” he said. “We’ve had some real success stories, a few that we’ve hired for permanent positions with us.”
Longtime eucharistic adorer
Stevens said his Catholic faith anchors and nourishes his marriage and family life. He and Ann attend Mass several times a week together and have devoted a weekly hour or more of prayer at St. Catherine’s perpetual adoration chapel since its opening 17 years ago. The Stevenses also try to say a daily rosary or the Chaplet of Divine Mercy together, and are adamant about getting their large clan together on Sunday for family dinners.
In his rare down time, Stevens is an avid reader of history and never misses an opportunity to go fishing.
“It’s so relaxing,” Stevens said of the rod and reel. “You leave in the dark, and then you’re out in the boat heading for your spot, and you see the beautiful sunrise, the pelicans flying, and then there’s the actual fishing. It’s really a connection with nature and God.”
But despite his love for the water and the fact that his company oversees New Orleans’ most famous paddle wheeler, you will never find Stevens at the helm of a steamboat, wearing the pilot’s cap.
“That,” he said, “would be very dangerous.”
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.
Catholic Foundation Dinner set for Oct. 11
• WHAT: The Catholic Foundation of the Archdiocese of New Orleans will celebrate its 2018 St. John Paul II Award winner, Gordon Stevens, at its 33rd annual Catholic Foundation dinner on Oct. 11. A cocktail reception will begin at 6 p.m., followed by the dinner program at 7 p.m. Archbishop Gregory Aymond will present the St. John Paul II Award.
• WHEN: Thursday, Oct. 11 at 6 p.m.
• WHERE: Hilton New Orleans Riverside, 2 Poydras St., New Orleans
• WHY: The Catholic Foundation hosts its annual dinner to bring the Catholic community together for an evening of fellowship and to publicly thank and recognize those who have contributed to the success of our mission. Archbishop Aymond chairs the foundation board, which has Jamie G. Lassere as president and August “Gus” Kuntz, James M. Adams and Gregory S. LaCour as officers. Patricia T. “Patsy” Hotard chairs the annual Dinner Committee.
• HOW: Attendees can RSVP online at http://cf.arch-no.org/annual-dinner/ or by phone to Madelyn Klein at 596-3044. Since 1976, The Catholic Foundation has assisted various ministries within the archdiocese to ensure the financial future of parishes, schools and social and charitable programs. For more information visit http://cf.arch-no.org/. Connect with the Catholic Foundation on Facebook and Twitter.