A former mortuary chapel celebrates life every day

Story and Photos By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, sitting on the French Quarter’s edge, is a welcoming beacon for locals of all races, abilities and life circumstances and for tourists alike.

It has been this way since its beginnings in 1826 as a mortuary chapel and burial church (considered outside the main city of New Orleans) for those who died from yellow fever.

Oblate Father Tony Rigoli, pastor since 2005, said beloved St. Louis Cathedral rector Capuchin Father Antonio de Sedella (Pere Antoine) helped with funerals from the beginning, and the church also was used as an army sanctuary during the Civil War.

Diocesan priests, Jesuits and the Dominicans who came in 1903 and relocated to Canal Street and with it the parish name of St. Anthony of Padua – have pastored here. The parish is also known as St. Jude’s, in honor of the patroness of desperate cases or lost causes.

Father Rigoli’s order – the Oblates of Mary Immaculate – were called by New Orleans Archbishop John W. Shaw in 1918 to take over operation of St. Louis Cathedral and its mission church, Our Lady of Guadalupe. It also is the official chapel of the New Orleans police and fire departments.

Choir represents parish

The parish’s current diversity was front and center Dec. 29 at the “Christmas at St. Jude’s” concert, combining the parish’s Sunday morning jazz and evening gospel choirs.

Choir director Steve Lee showcased the individual talents of members. The parish maintenance man, Dwayne Trahan, conducted several songs and sang; the drummer was King Rowe, assisted by Lee’s son Christopher, who has cerebral palsy; Jerrydette Joseph, a member of the New Orleans Black Chorale at Xavier University of Louisiana, offered solos, as did others.

Joseph said Lee is “awesome and an excellent director. He instructs us on how to connect to the liturgy through song. He constantly reminds us that we are in the Lord’s house.”

Lee took over the choirs approximately two years ago, strengthening both. The church is known for its jazz and gospel choirs at Sunday Masses. He calls the choirs a phenomenal group of individual parishioners who sing, play saxophone, trumpet, guitar and drums.

“My focus has been on making every Mass a celebration,” said Lee, who mentioned how struck he was by the diversity of the music in New Orleans when he moved to town.

Mission draws Massgoers

Father Rigoli said the parish has been composed of people from all walks of life, even before he came in 2002 as an associate. The choir is only one reason why people celebrate being Catholic at Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“I think the choir and parish go hand in hand,” Father Rigoli said. “The people who come here come because there is a sense of community, even with problems with parking (on North Rampart Street). The hospitality – I’ve never been to a parish like this in my life. People say they’ve never seen such happy people with people singing and participating. It’s a great experience.”

The creation of a St. Jude Thaddeus novena in 1935 by Oblate Father Jules Bornes, the first Oblate to take residence in New Orleans, is another part of the draw to the parish. A shrine is constructed here, and the novena continues four times a year – with the next one beginning Jan. 25.

The parish’s mission to reach out to the poor also attracts many. Our Lady of Guadalupe created St. Jude Community Center, across Rampart Street from the church, in 2005 in response to the homeless population that grew after Hurricane Katrina. The center serves breakfast and lunch six days a week to the homeless, and college students on mission trips are housed and fed while here.

“I see more and more diversity now,” Father Rigoli said. “The music ministry has brought in so many people for what we call the jazz Masses.”

The parish also celebrates a Spanish Mass Sundays at 1:30 p.m.

Unlike other parishes, Our Lady of Guadalupe doesn’t have a territorial boundary, Father Rigoli said. Its diverse pool of parishioners reflects the entire New Orleans area. Father Rigoli said about 15% of Mass attendants are tourists. He mentioned a recent Mass when someone became ill, and he asked for a doctor or nurse, and several stood to help because professionals, tourists and the homeless sit next to each other at Mass.

“I think that it’s because people see what we are about,” he said. “We are an outreach to the poor and needy. I think they see the parish living out our mission as a diverse urban city parish that is very welcoming, and its main ministry is to the poor and homeless. They know what we are about. I just feel that. Everybody who is here chooses to be here.”

Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish and the International Shrine of St. Jude is located at 411 North Rampart St., New Orleans. Masses are Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 7:30, 9:30 (jazz) and 11:30 a.m. (jazz);  1:30 p.m. (Spanish) and 6 p.m. (gospel). The upcoming St. Jude winter novena is Jan. 25-Feb. 2 with Franciscan Father Mario Serrano of San Antonio as guest preacher. Call 525-1551.

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