Story and photos by Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
Nestled in the heart of Kenner’s Rivertown neighborhood, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish has not only survived but thrived for 150 years as a hub of faith under the “perpetual” care of the Blessed Mother, said Archbishop Gregory Aymond, celebrating the church’s 150th Anniversary Mass on Nov. 16.
“As we look back, not all of the names of those who were part of the parish’s story are known to us, but they are known to God, and we give thanks to God for using them. They have left us a great legacy!” said the archbishop, thanking today’s OLPH parishioners for carrying on the work of evangelization – inviting others to “know Jesus” – through more than a dozen lively ministries.
“You care for the youngest child; you care for the senior citizen and all those in between; and you care for the poor and the hungry and the youth and those who are in need,” Archbishop Aymond said.
Deep New Orleans connection
The oldest parish church on the east bank of Jefferson Parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Help traces its roots to 1848, when the farming area was part of the old city of Carrollton and formed the upper reaches of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Parish, a Catholic faith community that ran downriver to the present-day Riverbend area of New Orleans. At that time, Carrollton was part of Jefferson Parish, and the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin was based at the Carrollton Avenue site that would later become today’s Mater Dolorosa Church.
In response to the growing Catholic population of the area known as “Kennerville,” St. Mary’s Mission Church was erected closer to home in 1868 under the pastorate of Father Francis Xavier Cueppens. St. Mary’s Mission became fully functional in 1869, which OLPH parishioners cite as their church’s inaugural year.
The annexation of the city of Carrollton to New Orleans in 1874 would lead to the carving of two distinct, full-fledged parishes out of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin: Mater Dolorosa in New Orleans; and St. Mary’s in Kenner. In 1936, the parish was renamed Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
Immigrants bring traditions
Numerous Italian and Sicilian immigrant families populated the parish in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, bringing with them two annual traditions that continue to this day: the St. Rosalie Mass, procession and benediction, held for the last 121 years on the second Sunday of September, in thanksgiving for the saint’s intercession in saving local livestock from an anthrax epidemic (and whose 2019 procession featured the recitation of the rosary in the Sicilian dialect); and the parish’s elaborate St. Joseph Altar, a collaboration between the Holy Name and Altar societies that offers 19 types of authentic, home-baked Italian cookies and fed an estimated crowd of 700 last March.
Father Richard Miles, OLPH’s 22nd pastor and its shepherd since 1991, said his devout and generous flock never ceases to inspire him. For example, his parishioners regularly avail themselves of the sacrament of reconciliation, available before all Masses and on Saturday afternoon.
“They earnestly desire to draw closer to the Lord. I really feel that,” Father Miles said. “That’s a draw for me, too, to know that people take their faith seriously and want to grow in their faith in Jesus Christ.”
In response to such fervor, OLPH has built up its Mass times over the decades, a schedule that includes a whopping seven weekend Masses, two daily Masses, a Tuesday evening Mass (followed by a Perpetual Help novena) and a Latin Mass celebrated every Saturday at 6 p.m.
“The numbers are growing for that (Latin) Mass,” Father Miles said, citing an average draw of 65 congregants, including some young adults. “Even though the number’s small, I think it’s significant in that it shows how people desire the old Mass, with all of its beauty and solemnity,” he said. “And they participate. It’s not like they’re just sitting on a log.”
Rounding out the Mass schedule is a First Thursday Mass dedicated to St. Philomena, and First Friday and First Saturday liturgies.
“Most parishes don’t observe First Friday and First Saturday as they should,” Father Miles notes. “I think it’s making a comeback!”
The pastor said other sources of parish pride include OLPH’s perpetual adoration chapel, an uptick in interest in Scripture study, a small but devoted Men’s Club primarily focused on prayer, and an on-site food pantry that dispenses groceries to those in need twice a week.
An elementary school, initially named St. Mary’s, was established at the parish in 1928. Founded and staffed by the Sisters of Mercy through 1993, the sisters commuted from New Orleans by train and streetcar until their Kenner convent was built in 1929.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help Elementary School currently educates 230 students ages 4 through seventh grade, its accolades including a locally esteemed choir led by Sister for Christian Community Christella Emano. The choir, which joined voices with the adult choir at the Nov. 16 Mass, performs a repertoire of Latin hymns at senior residences, hotels, the annual Rosary Congress and at the state capital in January, during the Right to Life March.
Memorial recalls tragic crash
The 1956-built church, renovated in the early 1980s and festooned with hundreds of yellow roses for the jubilee Mass, holds numerous examples of sacred art, including a statue of St. Rosalie, the patron saint of Palermo, and a first-class relic of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Its painted reredos, salvaged from the now-closed Holy Trinity Church in Bywater, is a Gothic masterpiece held together with wooden pegs and holds smaller statues of St. Rosalie, Our Lady of Perpetual Help and St. Joseph.
Outside the church, set among other prayer spots, is the official public memorial for the victims of Pan Am Flight 759, who died shortly after takeoff from the nearby airport in 1982. An annual remembrance ceremony or Mass is held at OLPH in July, inviting bereaved family members, elected officials and emergency personnel.
Bertha Marino, a parishioner since marrying her Rivertown-raised husband in 1973, said OLPH is a place where parishioners of all ages and backgrounds linger long after Mass is over. On Sundays, she and a clutch of parishioners gather for breakfast after the 7:30 a.m. Mass.
“It’s a sense of home at Perpetual Help – it’s like an extended family for me; I feel comfortable here,” said Marino, vice regent of the Catholic Daughters, treasurer of the Altar Society and leader of the St. Joseph Altar ministry.
“We are very blessed to have Father Miles,” Marino said. “He definitely understands his parish. He is accessible to everyone, all the time.”
Marino said Father Miles and his parochial vicar, Father Edward Owusu-Ansah, never have to ask for money or goods when a need arises.
“All Father Miles has to do is acknowledge the people, and they just lay everything down and meet whatever needs we have,” Marino said. For example, she said last April’s pro-life “baby shower” organized by the Catholic Daughters, sparked cash donations of about $1,200 for St. Vincent Maternity Clinic in Metairie.
“And we received bags and bags and boxes and boxes of diapers and baby clothes,” Marino said.
Ralph Vitale, OLPH’s sacristan, said he became a parishioner “by accident” 18 years ago after stumbling upon the church while his son was acting in a Rivertown play. He calls OLPH his “second home.”
“I started coming here because it was so friendly,” said Vitale, grand knight of the Knights of Columbus’ Stoulig Council, recalling a past KC project requesting underwear to give to flood victims.
“They brought us underwear like you would not believe! We had two trucks full!” Vitale marveled, adding that the same ‘can-do’ spirit infuses the behind-the-scenes work of the Altar Society. Members fastidiously embroider altar cloths, make vestments and clean and decorate the church.
“Some of them get up at 3 in the morning and come into church (to pray and do their work),” Vitale said. “They once asked me to paint some staples green – so they would blend in with the altar cloth. So, I painted them green.”