The triumph of New Orleans, the tragedy of the Catholic Church. A conversation with Jason Berry.

by Christiaan Mader

By the mid-1990s, journalist Jason Berry wanted to move on from writing about the Catholic Church. His landmark book, Lead Us Not Into Temptation, published in 1992, was an incendiary act of reporting, breaking wide open a clergy sex abuse scandal that has embroiled the church ever since. In his bid to move on, he turned his attention to New Orleans, his hometown and the other work-defining subject of his literary life, for a new focus in his career, beginning a history that would take him years to complete. When the Boston Globe published a landmark series in 2002, hanging the sex abuse scandal back on the national conscience, Berry was whisked once again into the throes of reporting that he began in and around Lafayette in 1985, writing on special assignment for The Times of Acadiana.

“I could have continued to write about the Catholic Church for the rest of my life,” he tells me. After another decade exploring the secrecy and politics of Rome, Berry returned to chronicling New Orleans. In 2018, just in time for the city’s tricentennial, he published City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300. A history teeming with life and detail, City of a Million Dreams contemplates the productive tension between extroverted African cultures and staid, orderly European society. New Orleans, in Berry’s telling, is defined by that grappling — between hedonic pleasure and Old World pieties, the black spirit and the yoke of white supremacy. He’s also working on a documentary of the same name, which will hit the film festival circuit in 2020, coincidentally the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Berry will make a pair of appearances discussing City of a Million Dreams in Lafayette this week. On Thursday, he’ll speak at an event hosted by UL Lafayette’s Center for Louisiana Studies at 3:30 p.m. On Friday, he’ll deliver an address at a luncheon organized by Friends of the Humanities, at The Petroleum Club of Lafayette at 11:30 p.m.

We spoke by phone on Easter Sunday. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

CM: The clergy scandal is still very much alive. Are you finding you have to keep fielding questions about it, even as you’ve tried to walk away?

JB: Well I never walked away from it; I just decided to shift the focus of my work. There have been two major stories of my life as a writer. The city of my birth and the church in which I was raised. I’ve been going back and forth between the two for the better part of 30 years now. I still do write from time to time about the church. I did a three-part series for National Catholic Reporter that posted right before the [2019 Vatican Abuse Summit] in Rome. There’s a lot about Lafayette in the first installment. I never imagined in the early ’90s, after I published that first book, that the bishops would continue with the same mentality of deception and secrecy. I don’t know if I’ll do another book on the church, but I’ll continue to do the occasional articles.

Do you still identify as a Catholic?

Well, I search for good liturgies, and sometimes, I find them. I haven’t left, is a good way to put it. It is a titanic struggle I deal with every day. If the ship is going to go down, I want to be with it. *Laughs* Believe me that’s a cynical joke. City of a Million Dreams bears a profound imprint of a spiritual sensibility. In some respects the story of two interweaving or converging spiritualities, one African and one Catholic. And a lot of the book is about the way New Orleans became a crossroads of humanity and the role that music and cultural memory played in that long process.

Do you have to be a New Orleanian to write about New Orleans or a Catholic to write about Catholicism in the way that you do? These are stories that seem to be intimate to you.

Well, I guess they are. I sustained quite an inner struggle writing about the church, particularly in Lafayette. That first year and a half was very bruising. The experience at The Times of Acadiana was quite good on most levels. Steve and Cherry Fisher May [then-publishers of The Times] backed me to the hilt. Linda Matys, the original editor when I began the work, was a superb editor. And then Richard Baudouin during the second half of my year and a half there. I got hit pretty hard by The Daily Advertiser. They went after me and The Times. I realize it was under previous ownership …. but when you attack the messenger rather than looking at the message … that was a sobering lesson for me.

New Orleans is a city of migrants, and the story of the city is one of different peoples converging and learning to adapt…

The New Orleans history was one of the most rewarding tasks I’ve ever taken on. I had no idea when I was getting into the final stretch of the writing in 2016 and 2017 that the story of a city triumphant, emerging as a robust metropolis after the terrible flooding after Katrina, would stand as a statement of hope at a time when America was covered in such political darkness. New Orleans is a city of migrants, and the story of the city is one of different peoples converging and learning to adapt and enriching themselves in partaking of the different folk-ways and traditions of the various home cultures, from Africa to Sicily to France and Spain.

There is no shortage of books on New Orleans, yet it still seems somehow so exotic to me in your writing.

The argument of the book is that the city’s beguiling personality is the product of a long tension historically between a culture of spectacle rooted in the slave dances of Congo Square and a city of laws that was long anchored in white supremacy. So chapter by chapter the book follows the manic thread of culture pushing against the law, and you certainly see that in the Sister Gertrude chapter [excerpted by The Daily Beast in 2018]. When all of the political and social forces of the day are converging in the French Quarter, segregation is still the law. And yet as Sister Gertrude is there, the mystic who is bearing witness and painting these otherworldly pictures, the freedom riders are coming through and gay culture is slowly coming out of the margins. …The pressure was building. How do you maintain a tourist economy when black people and white people cannot sit together in the same music club or for that matter in the same restaurants? How the city changed in a sense reflects a political accommodation to the popular culture. You find that moving forward through the various phases of the 300 years.

But wasn’t it more accurate to say that New Orleans was bucking against the American cultural mainstream?

Well, certainly in the South it was. But New Orleans in a way was a New York before New York. The first opera house was in New Orleans not New York. [Then] New York became the great metropolis, really the city of cities, where people from across the globe went to find their way. And we now see it, sadly … that most people of ordinary means cannot afford to live in Manhattan anymore. Contrast that with New Orleans, which is human scale, but it is a place where the social mosaic holds a mirror to the Carribbean in many of its mores and at the same time has that long touch of French and Spanish sensibility; it’s certainly there in the food and some of the mannered ways that people interact. You could say that’s old South, but it’s also European. I think the city has an allure to people from other places, and ever since Katrina it has become a kind of recovery narrative that keeps drawing greater numbers of visitors and tourists.

The sad thing to me is, here we are a generation later and the current bishop just continues to practice not being forthcoming.

You argued once that the lesson of the abuse scandal in Lafayette was why a strong press matters. Hearing you recount your experience, I don’t know if as a local journalist I would have been afforded the ability to do that same reporting today. And I mean that financially. Local press is under an economic assault in a way that’s really troubling.

I understand what you mean. There a couple of ways of looking at that. What was striking to me about the experience I had in Lafayette was not that The Times of Acadiana, or Steve May particularly, had the gumption to go ahead and let me do it. Plenty of alternative weeklies back in the ’70s and ’80s were doing really fine investigative work. What jumped out at me the most was getting attacked by the daily newspaper for doing my job as a journalist. The people who wrote those things are gone now, or at least no longer writing. I think the idea was so hard for people in Cajun country to really wrap their minds around that the church could be an institution so layered in secrecy and covering up such a range of sexual behavior patterns. The sad thing to me is, here we are a generation later and the current bishop just continues to practice not being forthcoming. You know the television station [KATC] really did the work the Diocese itself should have done. They’ve done extraordinary work … But now it’s kind of pathetic, in a way, that this bishop acts like nothing has changed, that the world is the way it was, and took his time, dragged his feet with all these questions lingering.

City of a Million Dreams seems hopeful. Why is there hopefulness, given all the slings and arrows pointed at New Orleans and Louisiana at large?

I think the city’s resilience is an American success story. I am not a triumphalist by temperament. Quite the opposite. One of the things I say in the book is that policy fails and culture prevails. The first several years after the hurricane, the state didn’t come to our rescue. There was no massive line of funding that came from Baton Rouge. FEMA was certainly actively present. It took quite a while before Congress authorized the Road Home program, and there were bureaucratic problems with that, getting the money into the accounts of people who needed the funds. In the end, it did work. But many of the musicians came back even when they didn’t have homes. And they kept playing, and had the music not returned, I don’t think tourism would have rebounded as quickly. Before the hurricane I would periodically get a call from a reporter … and he or she would say, “look I’ve been walking around the French Quarter. What’s it really like to live here?” I would always say the same thing. Politically nothing important happens here. This place is a backwater; it’s at the edge of America, and people yawn at corruption. But culturally this city is rich as gold.