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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.

 

Bishop Joseph Lawson Howze, the first black bishop to lead a diocese in the United States in the 20th century, died Wednesday, January 9 at the age of 95 after a lengthy illness.

Howze was appointed as the first bishop of the Diocese of Biloxi in 1977, and served there for 24 years. He had previously served as auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson, and as a priest for the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina.  

“While we are saddened by the death of Bishop Joseph Lawson Howze, we rejoice in his life,” Bishop Louis Kihneman III of the Diocese of Biloxi said in a statement.

“His was a life well lived in faithful service to Almighty God and to the people of Mississippi, both as an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson and later as first bishop of Biloxi from 1977 to 2001.”

“Establishing a new diocese was hard work, but Bishop Howze was very proud of what he, with the help of devoted clergy, religious and laity, accomplished during his tenure as bishop of Biloxi and was forever grateful to the people of the diocese for their unfailing generosity of time, talent and treasure,” Kihneman said.

Howze was born in Daphne, Alabama on August 30, 1923. He was the oldest of four children born to Albert Otis Howze Sr. and Helen Lawson. When he was just five years old, his mother died, and from then on, he spent much of his time in the homes of his grandparents, aunts and uncles. His father would eventually remarry and have three more children.

A bright student, Howze graduated as valedictorian of his high school class in 1944, and went on to graduate with honors from Alabama State College in Montgomery, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in science and education.

For the next two years after college, Howze taught high school biology and chemistry at Central High School in Mobile, Alabama. It was there that he was inspired by one of his Catholic students, Marion Carroll, Jr., to convert from Methodism to Catholicism.  

After his conversion and confirmation into the Catholic Church at the age of 25, Howze’s curiosity about becoming a priest grew, and after a few years he officially began studying for the priesthood, in spite of also having had dreams of joining the medical field.  

On May 7, 1959, at the age of 35, Howze was ordained as a priest for the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina. He became known for his ability to integrate his parishes despite racial differences, and was known for emphasizing the unity that the body of Christ had in God.

After serving as a priest for 13 years, Howze was appointed as auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Natchez-Jackson by Pope Paul VI, and was ordained a bishop on Jan. 28, 1973 in Jackson, Mississippi.

On March 8, 1977, Pope Paul VI appointed Howze as the founding bishop of the newly-created Diocese of Biloxi, along the Mississippi coast, where he would serve 42 parishes, 28 Catholic schools and some 48,000 Catholics.

Howze was the first black Catholic bishop appointed to lead a U.S. diocese in the 20th century. The first black Catholic bishop ever appointed to lead a U.S. diocese was Bishop James Augustine Healy, who was of mixed African and Irish descent. He was appointed to lead the Diocese of Portland, Maine by Pope Pius IX in 1875.

When Pope John Paul II visited New Orleans in 1987, Howze shared with him the concerns of many black Catholics about racism in the Church, and about the difficulty some black Catholics had in reconciling their faith with their race and culture, the Sun Herald reported.

Dr. Todd Coulter, a former student of Howze who is now an internal medicine doctor, said his example as a black Catholic leader was inspiring.

“We looked up to him,” Coulter told the Sun Herald. “He was a trailblazer for us, a hero — period. Especially for those of us who were considering the possibility of becoming a priest.”

Throughout his time as auxiliary bishop and as bishop of Biloxi, Howze served in numerous leadership positions, including as president of the National Black Catholic Clergy, a member of the World Peace Committee of the United States Catholic Conference (USCC), the Mississippi Health Care Commission, the NCCB Liaison Committee to the National Office for Black Catholics, and the NCCB Interreligious and Ecumenical Affairs Committee, among several others.

He was a Fourth Degree member of the Knights of Peter Claver, and a Third Degree member of the Knights of Columbus.

Kihneman said in his statement that he was honored to have had Howze present for his own installation as the fourth bishop of Biloxi, and that every time he visited him, Howze’s “first concern” was for the people of the Diocese of Biloxi.

“He loved the Diocese of Biloxi and prayed unceasingly for its continued success. He had a genuine concern for the salvation of souls,” Kihneman said.

“Now, we pray that God, who called Bishop Howze to priesthood and the episcopate, will now welcome him to his heavenly home where he will continue to intercede for us. May he rest in peace.” ​

The funeral Mass for Bishop Howze will be held at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral in Biloxi on Wednesday, January 16.

The radio broadcast of the 9:30 a.m. Mass each Sunday from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception has been temporarily suspended due to the closure of the Cathedral and the restoration work being done in the structure. The airing of the Mass will return  on KLCL (1470-AM) and KJEF-AM (1290-AM) in Jennings as well as on Radio Maria 91.1 FM once the inside work has been completed