Ann Autin was walking briskly down Josephine Street in the heart of the Irish Channel Sunday morning when she stopped abruptly at the corner of Constance Street.
She gazed up through the thick blanket of fog cradling the bells high up in the tower at St. Mary’s Assumption Church.
“It’s been a long time since we heard those bells,” she said. “‘Fixing them’s long overdue,’ I’d say. A church just don’t seem like a church unless it’s got bells. People in the community got to hear those bells. It makes everything seem right.”
Silenced and severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, by Hurricane Isaac in 2012 and the coup de grace of a direct lightning strike, the bells of St. Mary’s Church pealed again Sunday in the rebuilt belfry and tower of the National Historic Landmark.
Accompanied by the smaller sounds of the bell choir of St. Michael’s Special School from nearby, the bells in the lofty tower rang out over the faithful, gathered for a rededication ceremony.
“I’ve been here as pastor about 3½ years,” says Father Richard Thibodeau, C.Ss.R. “The water was pouring through the damaged tower and down the walls. There was actually water in the sacristy.”
So the Redemptorist priest put out the call to finance repairs. The work cost about $970,000.
The response was “quick and generous,” he says. “It brought this community together and was a real force in moving us into the future.”
“There are so many people who moved away from the Irish Channel who came forth,” says Jane Cross, one of the fundraisers. “And too, you have many more who still live here. People who have lived here all their lives.”
The damage was extensive, but the faithful didn’t let that stop them, Cross said. “They knew they had to come forth and do something.”
They gathered Sunday, pitching tents in anticipation of rain and a dedication Mass celebrated by Archbishop Gregory Aymond.
They moved refreshments — which consisted of cookies, many bell shaped and frosted — across Constance Street, inside St. Alphonsus Church.
“I live on Jackson Avenue and Annunciation,” said Lillian Moran. “I live in the same house my husband was born in. In fact, my husband is buried under the altar right here in this church.
“Right here in St. Alphonsus we were Irish-English. Across the street (at St. Mary’s Assumption) were the Germans, and down on Jackson Avenue was Notre Dame de Bon Secours, which was the French.
“But really, we’re all the same,” Moran says. “We’re all Channel people.”
Many of the men who never left and others who came back for Sunday’s bell ceremony discussed the mayor’s race, the governor’s race and which Irish Channel faction was going to back which candidate, “just like the old days,” one of the men says.
Many of the women here on this momentous Sunday talk of how “My son made his First Communion here” and “My momma and daddy were both laid out here.”
Sooner or later, these same women get around to talking in low reverent tones of “Father Seelos,” the Redemptorist priest who came from Germany and comforted and cared for many yellow fever victims before succumbing himself to the disease.
Father Seelos has been named “blessed” by the Vatican and is on the fast track for sainthood.
The venerable priest is buried a few yards from the revived bell tower that came to life Sunday.
Germans. French. Irish. Saints-in-waiting. The bells Gabriel and Pius. Irish Channel politics.
It doesn’t matter, Lillian Moran says. “We’re all like family.”