St. James Major celebrates its centennial with a native son

Story and Photos By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

St. James Major began its 100th anniversary celebration Sept. 15 with a Mass concelebrated by Archbishop Gregory Aymond, Father Michael Labre, the parish’s current pastor, and former pastor Father Richard Maughan.

Archbishop Aymond said it was an opportunity for him to come home. He was returning to his childhood parish, where he made his first Communion, confirmation, celebrated his first Mass and was even at the current church’s 1952 dedication as a child.

“Today, my friends, we come to recall the important spiritual events that happened for us,” Archbishop Aymond said. “Somehow, in God’s providential plan, he wanted a church here for Catholics to call home. God thought of, and still thinks about, Gentilly.”

Archbishop Aymond said parishioners were gathered in thanksgiving for the parish’s many blessings over 100 years. As he walked down the aisles sprinkling holy water, he asked them to recall their baptism as disciples of Christ.

He recounted in his homily a parish history, starting with how Archbishop (James) Blenk recognized a need and opened a mission church named for St. James.

“One of the mysteries of the story is somehow it became St. James Major,” Archbishop Aymond said. “It’s not in the history books, but somehow the people here thought he was major. (The area) was becoming so inhabited, there was a need for a priest, so, in 1920, Archbishop (John) Shaw established St. James Major as a parish church for over 1,000 Catholics in Gentilly. Father (D. Minor) Chauvin was appointed pastor.”

The parish’s quick growth caused the Holy Name Society of Men to build a hall in 1928 that was used as a church until 1952, when the current church was dedicated during the pastorate of Father Carl Schutten.

“This church was built, this dream was built because of the faith, the generosity, the vision, the perseverance of the people of the parish,” Archbishop Aymond said. “The founding mothers and fathers were the foundation on which the parish was built.”

Mount Carmel sisters

The elementary school was opened three years after the parish and was staffed, for decades, by the Sisters of Mount Carmel. Sister Lawrence Habetz, current president of the Mount Carmel Sisters, who taught math and was yearbook moderator at the high school from 1962-67, was at the celebration. Several St. James Major High School graduates also attended.

“The Carmelite nuns gave us our spirituality,” said St. James Major elementary and 1978 high school graduate Shannon Giordani. “We made our sacraments here, got religion every day and celebrated Mass.”

She said in high school, they were invited to serve at Mass.

“This is my home,” Giordani said. “It will always be my home. I will always be from Gentilly and a St. James Major girl.”

Archbishop Aymond mentioned Hurricane Katrina and how the parish community, especially its parishioners, were terribly affected. Church members said the church became an island but didn’t flood. Former pastor, Father John Finn, rode out the storm and had to be rescued by helicopter. But, he reopened the church as a beacon, allowing parishioners to return.

Denise and J.R. Thomas were among those who attended Mass even before the electricity came back. Denise is an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, a lector and Pastoral Council member. J.R. is a past Knights of Columbus Grand Knight and on the parish’s centennial steering committee.

“We wanted to get back to something familiar,” Denise Thomas said.

100-year jubilee theme

Archbishop Aymond said they gathered Sept. 15 to thank God for the many priests, nuns, lay teacher and lay leaders “who have made this a family of faith and continue to make it a family of faith today. Gentilly, this community, was in the mind and heart of God.”

The archbishop reiterated how Father Labre’s jubilee theme was three-fold: renew faith as a parish community, with Father Labre visiting and blessing every parishioner’s home; accept diversity more deeply in the parish and become a house of prayer for all people, be one family of prayer in God; and work together to serve the poor, care for the parish’s sick and walk and pray together.

The archbishop asked them to keep three things in mind during the anniversary: What more is God asking of this parish community? How could they invite others back who had been hurt by or who left the church? How could they encourage parishioners to be priests or religious?

“The story of St. James Major is a sacred story of which all of us are a part,” he said. “We should give thanks to God for the past. In this year of jubilee, we say thank you (to God) and celebrate this year and move forward in 2020.”

Father Labre, whom the archbishop said gives of himself to parishioners in a generous way, thanked everyone for coming to the celebration and welcomed back parishioners returning for the jubilee.

“Please come back; we will be blessed by you,” he said.

Spiritual, social and outreach activities are planned during the centennial year. Among them: a Feb. 8, 2020, Mass at 4 p.m., 100 years exactly after the parish’s first Mass, said 25-year parish secretary and 40-year parishioner Kitty Montz; a Youth Day, March 1; a Women’s Sunday, May 17; a Men’s Sunday, June 21; and a culminating Mass, Aug. 9 at 10 a.m.

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

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