As parishioners at St. Mary of the Angels (SMA) in New Orleans’ Upper Ninth Ward gather for Mass each Sunday morning, there is an overwhelming sense of joy and gratitude for God’s goodness and the presence of the Franciscan friars who have served the faith community for nearly 100 years. Choruses of “Amen” and “Hallelujah” ring out in response to stirring homilies, and members of the congregation raise their voices in thanks and praise, led by SMA’s gospel choir.
The faithful presence of the friars dates to 1925, when then-Archbishop John W. Shaw invited the Franciscans from Cincinnati to assume care of a proposed parish behind Claiborne Street in downtown New Orleans and Our Lady of Good Harbor in Buras, Louisiana. The first Mass at the new parish was celebrated in a three-room house serving as a temporary church on Aug. 2, 1925, the feast of Our Lady of the Angels. Over the years, the friars’ leadership and the faith and dedication of parishioners have seen the parish through cultural and economic changes, with SMA continuing to be a beacon of hope and stability in the neighborhood.
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, and floodwaters engulfed the Ninth Ward, Bart Pax, then pastor, and fellow friars sheltered
nearly 100 neighbors in the parish school building. Months after the water receded, while he was also waging a quiet battle against cancer, Bart kept a one-man vigil in the parish, coordinating the rebuilding and reopening of SMA.
“Because of the friars that came before us, there is a deep respect for the Franciscans here, along with a strong sense of family and a spirit of cooperation that continues to be nurtured,” said Joe Hund, current pastor.
The SMA community responded to Hurricane Ida’s aftermath with that same spirit of family, cooperation and service to others in late August of 2021. The friars chose to remain during the storm, primarily to be of service to their neighbors by opening the school and parking lot for shelter and distribution of emergency goods, such as water, food, ice, blue tarps, cleaning supplies and baby items. Parishioners worked especially hard to clear debris from the church grounds and assist their neighbors with cleanup and repairs. “The parish always endures,” Joe has said on more than one occasion.
Members of SMA agree. Every weekday morning, Lucille Carr McCormick walks six blocks to church for Mass or a Communion service. A longtime parishioner, she said, “I just can’t get enough of my faith. The friars are so caring and sharing. All of the priests and brothers over the years have made our lives so beautiful through their faith and dedication. I went to school here and my sons were altar boys. God is so good, and it’s by His grace and mercy that we are still here.”
Derek Rankins has been a member of SMA since he was in the fourth grade, and along with his wife, Keiaria, and infant daughter, Paz, considers the parish to be “a second home.” He is involved in the parish in a variety of ways, including serving as resident sacristan, as an altar server, helping to plan the centennial celebration and “supporting Fr. Joe and the other friars in their endeavors.”
The Franciscans have been “a light of justice” in a community where the people are proud, but many are struggling and still recovering from Hurricane Ida, Derek added. While it is a neighborhood in transition, with some additional homes under construction and new families moving in, the Upper Ninth Ward is an underserved community and has the lowest average income in the City of New Orleans. The friars’ collaboration with various community and social service organizations, including Catholic Charities Senior Food Distribution, College Track Program for high school students and Together New Orleans, speaks to their commitment to justice and the Franciscan spirit of humble and steadfast outreach to others.
“The friars have brought life to our parish and the neighborhood,” said Derek. “Because of them, we don’t feel like we’re in this on our own. They are willing to be part of the journey of life and faith with us and that means everything.”
Parish Financial Manager Lisa Alexander enjoys her ministry at SMA and speaks highly of the friars. “They’re all so kind,” she said. “I just love all of them. Fr. Joe and Fr. Mike (Haney) are just delightful to work with; Br. Dan (Barrett) is the sweetest; and Br. Juniper (Crouch, who prepares the friars’ evening meal) has this place smelling so good. You can tell how much they care about the community here and it’s nice to be part of that.”
Paulette Duplessis, parish secretary, still recalls the devastation that Hurricane Katrina wreaked upon the parish and surrounding community. “It was so hard trying to put everything back together. It was as though there was no life anywhere and everything seemed gray,” she said. “But we did come back and have stayed strong. That’s because the people are strong and care about one another. I feel like I’m contributing to the well-being of the church and neighborhood by working here and can help people with what they have going on in their lives. I love this community so much and am glad for the friars’ steady presence over the years.”
“The people here are very welcoming and very involved,” said Joe, pastor for the past six years. “I give the credit for that to the pastors who came before me. They really promoted lay ministry and leadership. For me, the most rewarding part of serving here is the people themselves: their love for their faith and the Franciscans. They have really built up and sustained this church. The African-American expression of liturgy here is awesome and reflects the parishioners’ deep spirituality and love for God. There is a family spirit here.”
“The Archbishop of New Orleans (Gregory M. Aymond) is thankful for our presence and is very supportive,” Joe added. “He’s a very personable and pastoral bishop.”
“The parishioners are good, faith-filled and genuine,” said Mike, parochial vicar. “One of the things I’ve witnessed is the pride among the people in the parish. It’s displayed in their conversations, the distance they come for Mass. And their care and concern for others is evident in their efforts to organize senior activities, food distribution for those in need and outreach to the sick. What’s happening here fits right in with being Franciscan.”
In addition to sacramental ministry at the parish, Mike also works part-time as a tutor in Catholic Charities adult literacy program, helping women and men who haven’t completed high school increase their employability, general knowledge and self-esteem. “The program isn’t based on the classroom concept but meets people where they are and is based on their individual learning level,” Mike explained. “The one-on-one contact has been very rewarding for me.”
Dan and Juniper both stay busy at the parish and are actively involved with ministry to the Secular Franciscans, specifically the fraternities in the St. Joan of Arc Region. For Dan, the commitment of SMA members to assume leadership roles in parish ministries and use their gifts for the good of the faith community, evangelization and outreach is inspiring. “I find this to be very encouraging and it gives me hope for the future,” he said.
The needs at SMA and in the local community are many and there are numerous opportunities for ministry, including working with youth, hospital chaplaincy and sacramental assistance. Mike noted that he was drawn there due to an interest in working with the underserved and in minority ministry. His desire to serve among those in need is, of course, rooted in the spirit of St. Francis. “It’s the utmost Franciscan commitment we can make,” Mike said. “Our ministry here is very Franciscan. I’m a friar, and that must impact my ministry, who I am as a person, how I live my life, and I’m living that out here.”
The friars at this welcoming, faith-filled parish are hopeful that other Franciscans will be called to join them. The best way to experience the ministry and fraternity at SMA is to visit, Joe emphasized. For more information, contact him at email@example.com or 269-539-7074.