Story and Photos By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
In the 1920s and ’30s, the four George sisters were true daughters of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in New Orleans.
Sybil George Gibson, the eldest, had celebrated all her sacraments at the family church on Dauphine Street.
She was baptized there, made her first Communion and confirmation there, was married there and, in 2018, even though she had been an active parishioner at St. Catherine of Siena in Metairie for more than 60 years, was buried from the childhood church that had so defined her and her sisters’ Catholic lives.
In 2000, the four George sisters – Sybil, Shirley Cannon, Patricia Mahaffey and Beverly Kelly – threw out to each other what they since have described as a “quixotic” challenge. Sybil, Patricia and Beverly had been overwhelmed by the beauty they had experienced on several stained-glass tours of local churches hosted by the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans.
“A seed was planted,” said Beverly, the youngest of the sisters, now 84. “Sybil mentioned it would be interesting to see all the different Catholic churches in the archdiocese. It was a curiosity to see all the churches. It was also a social outing, and Sybil loved social outings.”
Goal: Mass in every church
Captivated by the thought, the sisters then agreed on the ground rules: using the Clarion Herald’s annual Mass Schedule as a guide, they would visit one new church each month – they had to do it together – and their visit had to include Mass. Stopping by the church and poking their heads inside wouldn’t count. After Mass, they would share a meal together.
With more than 120 churches and chapels open at the time, the sisters figured their quest would take about 10 years to complete, but that target proved to be elusive. Katrina hit in 2005, Shirley died in 2017, Sybil died in 2018, and the sisters repeated churches on the list, mostly at the insistence of Sybil, who was known for her iron will and her love for St. Vincent de Paul.
Tabernacle light is on
But, now, after 19 years, the two surviving sisters – Patricia and Beverly – and Beverly’s husband Kenneth Kelly, the designated driver, can see the tabernacle light at the end of the tunnel.
There are four churches left on the Excel spreadsheet that Beverly, a former tax preparer, keeps on her laptop, and the sisters have these Mass dates circled in red: St. Nicholas of Myra Mission in Lake St. Catherine, Sept. 8; St. Mary’s Chapel on Jackson Avenue, Oct. 6; Holy Family Church in Franklinton, Nov. 3; and St. Joseph Abbey Church in Covington, Dec. 22.
“I think it’s fantastic – it really has been the ‘Impossible Dream,’ and I believe in the ‘Impossible Dream,’” said Kenneth Kelly, a retired Air Force photo interpreter, pointing to the statue of Don Quixote on a den table in his Slidell home.
Especially with churches in rural areas, Kenneth has had to rely on his GPS to guide him – “It’s been a godsend” – but they’ve never really gotten lost for more than a few minutes.
“He’s got maps in his head,” Beverly said.
Along the way, the sisters have experienced some cherished moments. They visited St. Monica Church, now closed, an African-American Catholic church on South Galvez Street in New Orleans.
“We didn’t anticipate this, but we got in the pew and the priest came out and said, ‘Do we have any visitors? Would they please stand?’” Beverly said, smiling.
“Four little white girls,” Kenneth said.
The sisters have had nothing but good experiences meeting new people from across the archdiocese. Due to Kenneth’s driving expertise, they’ve mostly been on time for Mass.
“We did sort of get lost on the way to Mary Queen of Vietnam Church,” Patricia, 88, recalled. “When we walked in late, Mass had already started, and they stopped the Mass and greeted us and said ‘Welcome.’ I wanted to crawl under the pew. But they were so nice. They invited us back for their Mother’s Day celebration.”
All Saints Church in Algiers gets the sisters’ prize for most inspired congregation.
“The Mass went on and on – maybe two hours,” Beverly said.
“They were always so friendly,” Patricia added.
Kenneth was raised Presbyterian and often attends Mass with his wife and sister-in-law, but sometimes he will wait for them in the car. Normally, Patricia and Beverly will greet the priest after Mass and tell him what they have been up to.
“They’re always the last ones out,” Kenneth said, laughing.
Gotten moral support
At the Tulane Catholic Center earlier this year, Dominican Father Thomas Schaefgen – who two summers ago set off on foot for Memphis on a walking pilgrimage with another friar – became enthralled with what the sisters were doing.
“They have a small university chapel, and he invited us for refreshments and coffee and donuts,” Patricia said. “We spoke to everyone.”
One of their favorite stops was St. Augustine Church in Treme, and they liked it so much they repeated it at the expense of their deadlines. They were excited by Divine Word Father Jerome Ledoux’s preaching.
“My daughter loved Father Ledoux,” Patricia said. “She lived in Lakeview and that wasn’t her parish church, but she went to St. Augustine every Sunday.”
Beauty of Prompt Succor
As for sheer beauty, Patricia loves the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor on State Street.
“It’s just the architecture and the stained-glass windows,” Patricia said. “It’s absolutely beautiful. But there were so many of them. We went to churches in small towns that were very old. In their simplicity, they were beautiful.”
“I like the little churches because I can’t hear too well and I don’t get distracted,” Beverly added. “At Mater Dolorosa, I might as well not be at Mass because all I’m doing is looking around. That is an absolutely gorgeous church.”
They have heard short and long homilies and homilies in other languages.
“I think it was at Our Lady of Lavang where the Mass was in Vietnamese for the older people but also in English for the younger people,” Patricia said. “The homily was given in both languages. I was very impressed.”
Beverly said she was overwhelmed by the piety shown by the children at Mary Queen of Vietnam. “Everyone went up to Communion with their hands folded,” she said. “They were so disciplined.”
Cathedral: A ‘tough’ Mass
St. Louis Cathedral also holds a poignant place in Beverly’s heart. After her daughter was murdered in 2011, Beverly attended the Mass for the Survivors and Victims of Violence, carrying up a framed picture of her daughter in the opening procession.
“Her picture was up there with all the other ones,” Beverly said. “It was tough.”
Besides their home church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Slidell, where they are daily communicants, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion and money counters, the spreadsheet says by December, the sisters will have visited 160 churches in the last 240 months.
“But 45 of those were repeats,” Beverly said, explaining why it took so long. “If anyone wants to do something similar to what we have done, I do have advice: Prioritize your churches and have no repeats until you get them all done. Don’t let it be a democracy. You need a dictator.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.