Catholic history of New Orleans highlighted during 300th anniversary

By Christopher White | Crux

Thirty years ago, investigative reporter Jason Berry pioneered new territory by covering clerical sexual abuse in Louisiana. Since then, his name has become synonymous with the crisis that continues to loom over the Catholic Church today.

In his new book, City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at 300, Berry returns to his roots. In an interview with Crux, he details some of the city’s rich Catholic history, its efforts to confront race relations, and why researching some of the city’s saints proved far more fulfilling than his work in Rome.

Crux: You’ve spent decades uncovering and chronicling the Church’s shameful history of clerical sex abuse and cover-up, yet this new book switches gears to tell the story of a city – your city – New Orleans. What prompted you to write this book?

Berry: In 1985, when I began investigating clergy abuse cases in Lafayette, Louisiana my second book was heading toward publication, Up from the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II.  After six years on that topic I had become intrigued with jazz funerals, how they arose, what they said about the city. As I gathered documents on clergy predators, the narrative taking shape for Lead Us Not into Temptation (1992) became hugely consuming. I came back from reporting trips, numbed by clerical secrets and crimes, and invariably attended the funeral of a musician. As the mourners danced in the streets, I felt strangely happy. My own church made me sad. The city of my birth was sending rhythms of spiritual hope.

This paradox went on for a quarter-century or so as I read about New Orleans alongside church history, while excavating rot in the ecclesiastical culture. Slowly, I found in the funerals’ evolution a mirror on the history of the city. Over time I got tired of the church reporting. What I’d concluded in the 1992 book is what I say in interviews today. How does one reform a hierarchy addicted to lying? I had to cut distance from the Church reporting to give full time to the New Orleans book. I did my last leg in 2015 with Pope Francis’s trip to Washington. I’ve done some op-eds since then but shifted my focus to New Orleans.

Crux: In many respects, this is more than just a history of New Orleans. It’s a love letter to the city! Is it fair to say New Orleans enjoys some of the richest Catholic history of any city in the country?

Berry: Well, Christopher, it’s fair to say that the Catholic history of New Orleans is rich in its complexities (unbeknownst to most local Catholics) but please do not accuse me of being a mushy valentine scribe. It would disappoint some locals who loathe me for being a muckraker. Not to mention certain people in old-line Carnival clubs aghast over Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s decision to dismantle four Confederate monuments who would gag over the idea of my book as a love letter.

Every book is a voyage of discovery. In this one I found that map-of-the-world neighborhoods give New Orleans its essence; it was a crossroads of humanity long before “melting pot” became a term. The culture of spectacle that arose from public dances of enslaved Africans at a park called Congo Square kept pushing against the official city after the Civil War with a force that fueled the popular culture. I followed that tension of culture vs. law as a thematic line throughout the narrative.

Crux: How has the city, and in particularly, the Jesuits, reckoned with their history of slave ownership?

Berry: The city has had a black voting majority since the 1970s and a string of African American mayors between the administration of Moon Landrieu [1970-78] and that of his son, Mitch, who recently finished an 8-year term. New Orleans is the city where jazz began and now markets that culture effectively. Nevertheless, as in much of the South, there is a contagion here of nostalgia-as-history; some prominent locals avoid the legacy of enslavement as if smiling at a garden party where nobody mentions the cadaver sprawled across the rose bushes.

Whitney Plantation is a museum of slavery in a town called Wallace about an hour or so by car upriver. It is a truly amazing place. The museums and universities explore slavery in conferences, courses and symposia that widen our viewfinder on the past. The Church is more complicated.

The Ursulines and Jesuits were major slaveholders in New Orleans during the French colonial era [1718-1767]. Emily Clark, a distinguished historian at Tulane, has done impressive work on the complexity of the Ursuline sisters’ plantation and ownership of slaves, some of whom they educated. I have not found the same level of scholarship about the local Jesuits as slaveholders, though as I worked on this book, Georgetown University (where I earned by B.A.) embarked on a major project, confronting the 1838 sale of 272 slaves whom the Society of Jesus sent to Louisiana, by seeking out their descendants in some rough calculus at moral atonement. The Georgetown Memory Project has had its twists and turns yet strikes me as a model for higher education in a country where certain leading universities had serious involvement in the slave economy.

Crux: Just last month the U.S. bishops issued a new pastoral letter on race. How has the Church in New Orleans historically dealt with race relations-and what’s your assessment of the state of affairs today?

The Church in French colonial Louisiana, despite the plantations of religious orders, welcomed slaves and free persons of color, a substantial presence in this society, at St. Louis Church on the main square. After the Spanish took control in 1767, African blooded people who married, baptized their children and buried their dead at the big Church found a hero in Pere Antoine, a rebellious cleric who flaunted Church authority. He was a Spaniard who arrived as a secret agent of the Inquisition – imagine that, in sin city!  – but clashed with the governor who shipped him back to Spain. He returned from exile in 1795, after a triumphant appeal to the king; he then fostered a cult of personality. Pere Antoine went to war with two bishops over his control of St. Louis Church, forcing both to retreat. He’s among the most fascinating figures to me in this character-driven history. A law unto himself, he died in 1829 with the equivalent of a state funeral.

The Church soon swung around to supporting the Confederacy.  Not until the late 1950s did the Church embrace racial reconciliation with desegregation of parochial schools under Archbishop Joseph Rummel. Given the historic role of African American Catholics here, and of the parochial schools in educating black youngsters, the Church in that respect is today an enlightened presence.

The greater story to me in writing this book was the nature of black spirituality. Mother Catherine Seals, a faith healer of the 1920s had a large compound in the Lower Ninth Ward, far from the city proper. She took in battered women and pregnant girls; she played trombone in a big tent where jazzmen like Harold “Duke” Dejan got his start; he went on to lead the Olympia Brass Band for forty years. The chapter I did on Mother Catherine draws on the unpublished family history of people who grew up in the Manger – three siblings who got married there, one a noted trumpeter, Ernie Cagnolatti.

After Mother Catherine’s death, an evangelist named Sister Gertrude Morgan moved into a house near the old Manger site, and in 1957 received a vision that she was a bride of Christ. That religious experience inspired her to paint. Her images of the New Jerusalem, a heavenly realm beckoning those in a fallen world, today hang in museums and command major prices when they come on the market.

She also wrote poetry, and wrestled with her role as the bride of the Father and the Son. Sister Gertrude was a dynamic presence during the 1960s’ jazz revival at Preservation Hall. Her French Quarter art dealer could have come from central casting: Larry Borenstein was thrown in jail three times in Mexico for trying to steal antiquities; he adored her and found collectors and curators to buy her works, while falling in love with a woman half his age. I’m convinced that the proximity to her softened Larry. His daughter gave me access to the love letters he wrote her mother. Both parents are deceased. Sister Gertrude was a mystic whose dialogue with the Lord reminded me of the ecstasies of St. Catherine of Siena and the otherworldly verse of William Blake.

Researching Mother Catherine and Sister Gertrude was vastly more fulfilling to me than all of the reporting I did over the years in Rome.