By Debbie Shelly, The Catholic Commentator
Photo by Michael DeMocker | ASSOCIATED PRESS POOL PHOTO
BATON ROUGE, La. – Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s legacy of faith was evident in the way she loved her church and family and cared for the state of Louisiana and its people, say those who knew her.
“Gov. Kathleen Blanco epitomized a life of inspirational Catholic faith, compassionate charity and elegant grace,” said Baton Rouge Bishop Emeritus Robert W. Muench. “Her training and experience as an educator enhanced her work, first as a state legislator and then as governor.”
He said in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Blanco personally convened a special prayer service.
“Upon her being diagnosed with cancer,” Bishop Muench said, “I emailed her to assure her of my support and prayers, to which she acknowledged thanks. We exchanged occasional subsequent such messages. Blessed are those who die in the Lord; their good deeds go before them (Rev 14:13). May she rest in peace.”
Always leaned on faith
State Higher Education Commissioner Kim Hunter Reed, who served as Blanco’s deputy chief of staff, said, “She was always talking about her faith. She wanted to make sure her faith would be what she would be remembered for. It was her faith that got her though the tough times. It gave her courage.”
She said Blanco “never met a stranger,” and in her travels with her around the state, she was genuine in her concern for people.
Reed pointed out that in her open letter to the people of the state, Blanco thanked them and asked them to pray for her.
“She was a humble person who believed in the power of prayer,” Hunter Reed said.
Irene Shepherd, a former long-time governor’s mansion employee, said of Blanco, “To know her is to love her.”
“It was a privilege to witness her living her faith in the four years I worked with her,” Shepherd said. “Her strength never wavered. It never changed, no matter what she went through. She was filled with grace, faith and hope.”
Shepherd, who now works at St. Aloysius Parish in Baton Rouge, said when someone was having a tough time “she was always there to pick them up,” visiting hospitals, nursing homes and homes of family and friends in need.
Blanco’s, son, Ben, died in 1997 at 19 in an industrial accident, after which she was often by the side of people grieving the loss of a child.
“She considered that her ministry, because she had been there and done that,” Shepherd said.
She and Erin Mosely, also a parishioner of St. Aloysius who served as director of scheduling for Blanco, visited with the former governor the Wednesday before she died.
“She was in her recliner, and she had a smile on her face. She wanted to know how people were doing,” said Shepherd.
Mosely noted that legislative sessions often overlapped with Lent, yet Blanco was determined to attend daily Mass and asked her to schedule around that as much as possible.
“She would say, ‘Get me to Mass,’” Mosely said, noting that Blanco attended different church parishes to accomplish this.
Liked Christ the King
Blanco would often attend noon Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral, where she developed a relationship of then-pastor Father Jerry Young. When she was unable to attend noon Mass, she would often attend an evening Mass at Christ the King Church and Catholic Center in Baton Rouge, where she developed a relationship with then-pastor Father Than Vu.
Mosely said Blanco made her decisions based on what she thought was best for the people.
“I think she was always able to put her head on her pillow at night knowing that she did the best she could,” said Mosely.
Concerning that last visit with Blanco, Mosely said, “She was at peace. She was accepting and knew what was going to happen and that her time was coming. She knew she would see Ben on the other side.”
Dan Juneau, a member of Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Baton Rouge and retired president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, knew Blanco for many years, beginning when he was working with the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce and she was working for the U.S. Department of Commerce.
In 1983, Blanco was elected as the first woman legislator from the city of Lafayette. She served five years in the Louisiana House of Representatives. In her first term, she and her friend, Evelyn Blackmon of West Monroe, were two of only five women in the Legislature.
“She had a different perspective from most of the men in the Legislature. She was interested in how it would affect the people in her area,” Juneau said.
And that did not change throughout her political career, adding that when he contacted Blanco, she would again ask, “How will help this help the people of Louisiana?”
The former governor also loved the outdoors had a hunting and fishing license and was proud of her Cajun roots, according to Juneau.
“She had the very essence of Louisiana and put it in a political framework,” Juneau said.
He added. “I hope God sends us public servants of her caliber in the future.”
Debbie Shelley is assistant editor of The Catholic Commentator in Baton Rouge.