Story and Photo By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
St. John the Baptist Church, known for its “gold steeple” on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City, aims to boost its post-Katrina status as a mission of St. Patrick Church downtown to that of a full-fledged parish.
The first official step in making that journey is the addition of a Sunday Mass at 9:15 a.m., which will begin on Palm Sunday.
St. John the Baptist already celebrates a 4 p.m. Mass on Saturdays, but the new Sunday Mass resulted from recent meetings by a group of stalwart individuals – several with childhood ties to the church – with Archbishop Gregory Aymond and other archdiocesan officials, including building office director Andre Villere Jr., outgoing St. Patrick administrator Father Ian Bozant and incoming pastor Father Garrett O’Brien.
Criteria set for moving ahead
Those meetings outlined criteria and a timeline to achieve full-parish status.
“We had a good meeting discerning how we are going to manage St. John the Baptist and how we will promote it,” said Michael Varnado, a lifelong church member, lector and artist who restored statues at the church, deemed a city landmark in 2019 by the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission.
Varnado, Dan Akers, John Ciravolo Jr., Ricky Becnel, Noel Lamonte, Frank Maselli and Mae Webb were named to the parish’s new finance council.
A second meeting on April 3 cemented the goals that must be met by May 31, 2020, Akers said.
Weddings, baptisms and funerals can begin again immediately at the church, Akers said. The church also hosts the popular St. Lucy feast day Mass every December.
Other items outlined in the agreement include:
• Estimating the total known expenses for 2019, minimum yearly contributions by parishioners, extraordinary expenses and yearly finances.
• Establishing a finance council, chaired by the St. Patrick pastor, that will meet with him every other month.
• Publishing St. John the Baptist’s collections and expenses in St. Patrick’s weekly bulletin.
• Approval by St. Patrick’s pastor and/or archdiocesan building office of expenses.
• Approval of wedding paperwork, sacramental records and events, including fundraisers, by St. Patrick before being scheduled at St. John the Baptist.
• Adding a Mass for Holy Days of Obligation.
• Ensuring that ordinary income account for 85% of the church’s ordinary expenses. Capital campaign funds can be applied only to diocesan-approved capital projects.
• Repaying new loans, if necessary, from the Archdiocese of New Orleans, by 2020.
• Counting Mass participants weekly, with the stipulation that at least 30 people are attending the Mass.
• Providing at least one musician for Sunday Masses;
• Creating a website for St. John the Baptist or a page that will be included on the St. Patrick; providing a wedding coordinator for weddings.
Father Randy Roux will serve as chaplain of St. John the Baptist and celebrate most of the Masses.
Church is in good shape
St. John the Baptist Church Parish was established in 1851, and its Romanesque brick church was completed in 1871. The first Mass was celebrated on Christmas Day, 1871, by Archbishop Napoleon Perche. The church was formally dedicated Jan. 7, 1872.
The parish flourished with Irish and other immigrants for many years and had active ministries such as the Holy Name Society, Altar Society, St. Vincent de Paul Society and CYO. Parishioners helped pay for the church’s magnificent stained-glass windows and retired the church debt over the years.
“The parish had all kinds of people,” said Varnado, who received all of his sacraments and was married at St. John the Baptist.
Varnado converted to Catholicism as a youth living in the Guste Housing Development. He said the Holy Ghost priests who staffed St. John the Baptist made the parish a haven for him and his friends to play ball.
“We didn’t have anywhere to go around here, but the church had baseball diamonds … This institution saved me and other people like me,” Varnado said. “Who knows where I could have ended up? The priests were geniuses and so kind and personable. They cared about me.”
Mae Gialioto Webb, 86, now president of the St. Lucy Society, said her family grew up in the church. She was baptized there in 1932.
“To me, it means my heart,” Webb said “Even when I lived out of town, I came back to church here.”
The church’s original stained-glass windows were made in Germany, beginning in 1874 through 1963, according to a printed brochure in 2007 by the New Orleans Stained Glass Society.
Two priests are buried in the church: Father Thomas Kenny (pastor from 1874-81) and Father James Footte (pastor from 1881-1889).
Benedictine artist Dom Gregory de Wit completed paintings and stations of the cross for the church. The school, which first opened in 1855, was run by the Christian Brothers and the St. Mary’s Dominican nuns from Ireland.
While the church has had some structural issues – termites had gotten to the bell tower, the roof needed repair and water was seeping through the bricks – Father Bozant said waterproofing of the bell tower was completed, and the sealing border around the tower was repaired, so the church is in fairly good shape now.
St. John the Baptist was part of the post-Katrina restructuring of the archdiocese. The church was limited to celebrating only one Mass weekly.
Now, with new and renovated single-family homes and condominiums going up in the area near the Superdome, the council is optimistic the church will flourish once again.
“We see the condos coming up and houses around Carondelet and Baronne,” said Akers, who does church maintenance and is a lector and minister of holy Communion. “We see a lot of strangers who are overjoyed coming here. … We want to get to a steady 150 on Saturday and 150 on Sunday.”
The group will go door to door and reach out to former parishioners in hopes of building membership and reaching its goals.
“It will be a little rough but I think it’s possible,” Akers said. “We have a good support base with devout believers, and we are all united. We are going to fight to the end. This church is a holy church. It is a historical landmark.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.