NEW ORLEANS -- The Rev. Jerome LeDoux, who pastored St. Augustine Catholic Church in Treme as it successfully fought off closure after Hurricane Katrina, died Monday in Lafayette General Hospital after double bypass surgery. He was 88.
This week, Treme residents recalled seeing the rectory’s lights burning late into the night as LeDoux, a well-known night owl, read, wrote and welcomed visitors with a freshly made glass of carrot juice or a plate of vegan food.
He slept on a pallet on the floor on the rectory’s lower level so that he could receive visitors quickly, no matter the hour. Homeless people who stopped at the rectory door on Gov. Nicholls Street knew that LeDoux would always give them something to eat. A former neighbor said he lent her his personal cellphone when her ex-husband was stalking her.
“Father LeDoux’s touch, his kindness for a person was just unbelievable. He meant so much to so many people because of that,” said parishioner Sandra Gordon, remembering how visitors from around the globe returned to the church for years after being personally welcomed by LeDoux, who spoke seven languages.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond said, “We know his ministry touched the lives of many people and called them to live more faithfully as disciples of Jesus.”
During the 16 years that he led St. Augustine Church, though, LeDoux was sometimes viewed as a maverick.
On Palm Sunday, he rode a donkey to church. He was known for wearing dashiki vestments and Birkenstock sandals during Mass.
Funerals — whether for longtime neighbors, paupers, Mardi Gras Indian chiefs or jazz icons — meant meandering, inspirational LeDoux eulogies that went on and on even during the hottest days of summer, though the church usually lacked functional air conditioning.
Instead of standing behind a pulpit, he walked around the church as he preached, putting his hand on shoulders and welcoming people by name who had been sick or out of town. During the "sign of peace" portion of the service, he circled the church twice, hugging everyone he saw.
LeDoux was born in Lake Charles in 1930. He remained in Lake Charles until his early teen years when he set off to join an elder cousin and his older brother at a seminary in Mississippi. His cousin, the son of his mother’s sister, was Bishop Harold Perry, former auxiliary bishop of New Orleans. Harold Perry completed seminary studies in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi 13 years earlier than Jerome LeDoux.
Jerome LeDoux’s older brother, Louis Verlin, also chose to be a priest, attending the same seminary just four years before Jerome himself would start his schooling there. Choosing to follow a life of faith in Jesus Christ and enter the seminary isn’t something one does lightly, as Father LeDoux was quoted as saying, "They had gone to the seminary ahead of me. My mind drifts, searching to answer your question, “What put in your mind that you might be a priest?” Well, my cousin, Harold Perry, 13 years ahead of me, 9 years ahead of my brother Louis Verlin. Of course, they painted a picture of Bay St. Louis, which is situated right on the Bay of Saint Louis and the Gulf of Mexico. They referred to it as “The Bay,” this romantic, storied place where these boys were going. Naturally I might want to go there too. That was the start of it, back in 1943, I was 13 years old. I started high school there.”
He was ordained as a priest in 1957 and sent by his religious order, the Society of the Divine Word, to Rome, where he earned a doctorate in canon law and a master’s degree in theology.
A few years after he returned to the U.S., he moved to New Orleans and spent 11 years teaching theology at Xavier University. For nine of those years, he lived in the St. Augustine rectory as a resident. He left the city for several years, to pastor churches in Prairieville and Baton Rouge, but came back in 1990 as pastor at St. Augustine.
In 2006, LeDoux was tossed into a period that he referred to as “the big storm — and I don’t mean Katrina.”
On Ash Wednesday of that year, Archbishop Alfred Hughes told LeDoux that the archdiocese was permanently closing St. Augustine Parish and merging it with the larger St. Peter Claver Parish.
The closure cut deeply for those who saw the church as a cultural and spiritual anchor for its neighborhood, crucial to those trying to recover from the disaster. LeDoux told him, “Archbishop, I will do as you say, but you will not change any minds and you have not changed mine.”
That Sunday, LeDoux broke the news to his congregation. “That’s when they rose up as one person,” he said in a 2007 interview. Though LeDoux stayed publicly silent, he was privately supportive of parishioners who held vigils for weeks, hosted luminaries such as civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and even took over the rectory for 19 days, with demonstrators fed and supported by a group of plucky parishioners, most of them elderly women.
By April 2006, Hughes had backed off the closure, reconsecrating the church and telling parishioners that the archdiocese had made “unfortunate missteps.”
Still, the ax fell on LeDoux, who soon drove off quietly in a U-Haul truck in what an archdiocesan spokesman described as “simply a retirement issue.” He spent the next nine years assigned to Our Mother of Mercy in Fort Worth, Texas, as an administrator. More recently, he was asked to help with the ministry at Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Opelousas, where he worked until his death.
To the end, friends say, he maintained his encyclopedic, curious mind — about the Scriptures, R&B and jazz music, history and every person he met. “He never forgot your name,” said drummer Luther Gray. “And he always had that beautiful smile — his face would light up to see you.”
Fr. LeDoux is survived by a sister, two brothers, and members of his religious order.
A Memorial Mass is planned for Monday, January 14 at 6 p.m. at Holy Ghost Parish in Opelousas. Prior to the Mass, his religious congregation will receive visitors from 3 to 5:45 p.m.
On Tuesday, January 15, St. Augustine Seminary in Bay St. Louis will hold a viewing from 5 p.m. to 6:45 p.m., followed by a prayer service at 7 p.m.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, January 16 at St. Augustine Seminary. Interment will be at the seminary.