There were more than 200 priests who attended the annual Archdiocese of New Orleans Priests’ Convocation last week, and Msgr. L. Earl Gauthreaux, pastor of St. Maria Goretti Parish, stood out among his casually dressed colleagues, and not just because of his peach “color rush” golf shirt.
Msgr. Gauthreaux will be 88 in November. He has been a priest going on 63 years and a pastor at St. Maria Goretti Church in New Orleans East for 50.
Ask him about his longevity as an active pastor – despite his post-Katrina battles with lymphoma and heart blockages – and he will whip out some crazy new math.
“I’m going to be 88 on the second of November, so I’ll be 16 – that’s 8 plus 8,” Msgr. Gauthreaux said, smiling.
A chaplain’s story
At a time when the Catholic Church is taking body blows for the failure of some bishops to effectively address clerical sex abuse, Msgr. Gauthreaux is the poster “child” for everything sacred and honorable about the priesthood.
Ordained in 1956 by Archbishop Joseph Rummel, Msgr. Gauthreaux spent three years, from 1960-62, earning a canon law degree at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., so that he could sit as a judge on the Metropolitan Tribunal, which handles painful marriage cases and requests by women and men for declarations of nullity, more commonly known as annulments.
Because Msgr. Gauthreaux had four years of pastoral experience in parishes before arriving in D.C., university officials asked him to serve as a chaplain to the younger students, so he gladly agreed to join the chaplaincy staff.
One of his fellow assistant chaplains turned out to be a young priest from the Archdiocese of New York, Father Theodore McCarrick.
Since June, when the sexual abuse allegations against the future Cardinal McCarrick became public and people wondered how a priest could have ascended to such heights in church hierarchy given his shadow self, Msgr. Gauthreaux has had a difficult time trying to make sense of the despicable.
“Unbelievable, unbelievable,” Msgr. Gauthreaux said. “There was no indication of any of that when I knew him. We ate in the cafeteria every day with the students. We saw each other every day.”
How does he process the fall?
“Well, original sin still exists,” Msgr. Gauthreaux said. “People still fail and fall, even though they might progress in the church. A lot of people have addictions.”
In more than 40 years as a tribunal judge hearing testimonies about painful marriages – and in his years as a priest in confession – Msgr. Gauthreaux has heard things that seemingly would be impossible to forget. And, yet, he feels God has protected him from carrying any bitterness in his pastoral responsibilities as a priest.
Those St. Paul moments
“The Lord gives us special graces, I think, to forget what you hear in confession, because I really don’t think about it,” Msgr. Gauthreaux said. “You hear people’s confessions and sins – all kinds of sins – and then you give them absolution and send them home with God’s grace. I think, by the grace of God, I am what I am. When people come to confession, it’s almost like a St. Paul moment. It’s a trigger event in their lives. They become better people, very faithful people, grace-filled people.”
When Katrina hit and swamped St. Maria Goretti Church in 2005, it did not look likely that the parish could survive. Msgr. Gauthreaux decided to keep on the payroll anyone on his parish staff who could return “and work in the destruction of the place and the clean-up. I said, ‘I’m not getting rid of all these good people who have been so loyal to us.’”
Incredibly, the gutted the church was ready in time for Christmas Eve Midnight Mass in 2005, but Msgr. Gauthreaux was not there to celebrate it. He was in Our Lady of the Lake Hospital in Baton Rouge, taking treatment for Mantle Cell Lymphoma (MCL). He noticed something was wrong only when he had started developing bruises all over his body during the Katrina restoration.
Doctors installed a port to carry chemotherapy deep within his body.
“I just figured, well, you know, this is another thing, another battle,” he said.
To that point, the cancer diagnosis was his only medical issue other than the time one night when he ran home from third base with two outs in a parish men’s softball game at Goretti Playground – the park the parish built – slid into home plate and broke his right ankle.
“I was leading the team in batting average,” Msgr. Gauthreaux said, laughing.
Changed out his voltage
More seriously, he underwent a pair of heart bypass operations in which a cow valve and a pacemaker were installed to regulate a balky heart. The first pacemaker had double-wire electrodes, and the second had three wires. The three-wire version is called a “St. Jude Pacemaker.”
“I tell people I went from 110 to 220,” Msgr. Gauthreaux said, laughing. “It seems to be working well.”
Ask Msgr. Gauthreaux about church crises, and he reflects back to the 1950s, when Archbishop Rummel was weighed down by the sin of racism and determined to integrate the Catholic school system.
“He paved the road for integration,” Msgr. Gauthreaux said. “I’m sure it was tough on him, but, you know, he was a very strong German. He was born in Germany and raised around New York. He was a very strong man who knew right from wrong and what was moral and immoral, and he wanted to straighten out the situation.”
St. Maria Goretti, once an almost exclusively white parish, is now about 90 percent African American. “We have such loyal, good Catholic people, very supportive of the church,” Msgr. Gauthreaux said.
Msgr. Gauthreaux’s recollection is that “99 out of 100” priests knew that segregation was morally wrong and “wanted things to be set up properly so that everybody would be on an equal footing.”
‘I want one here and one here’
He gives credit to Archbishop John Cody for establishing the archdiocese’s centralized finance and insurance system, which allowed the growing archdiocese to buy acres of undeveloped property for new churches and schools in the 1960s. And, it is true that Archbishop Cody flew in a helicopter over the wilderness of Metairie and pointed out where to buy property.
“He’d fly over the land that he wanted and he would buy it,” Msgr. Gauthreaux said. “Actually, even though there was external indebtedness, he really set up the whole archdiocese and kept us going, and that’s where we are today.”
When Archbishop Gregory Aymond decided to appoint new pastors to six-year terms – renewable for another six years at the archbishop’s discretion – Msgr. Gauthreaux made sure he spoke up. Not that it would be good for every pastor to stay in his parish for a half-century, as he has, but he wanted to make sure the archbishop gave himself some wiggle room.
“I knew some bishops and archbishops and cardinals, and one of the things they hated most about the term limit was that sometimes a priest was doing great work, and that 12-year limit came and they had to move,” Msgr. Gauthreaux said. “I told him, ‘Don’t tie your hands that way.’”
The archbishop listened.
After 50 years in one place, Msgr. Gauthreaux can’t imagine being anything other than a priest and being anywhere other than St. Maria Goretti, celebrating daily Mass and ministering to the sick.
“You know, every day is a celebration,” he said.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.