Food is an object of reverence in New Orleans. Now, the city is also home to a special church service for the people who prepare and serve it.
When the Olive Mass debuted last year, it was the first service of its kind in the U.S. It returns for the second time Monday at St. Louis Cathedral.
Once again, the aim is to pay tribute to people in the hospitality industry, to acknowledge the role they play in the larger community and to offer solace for the sacrifices the field can demand.
“Our mission is celebrating food and blessing the hands that make it and serve it,” said the Rev. Leo Patalinghug, the priest who helped create the Olive Mass.
After last year’s service, he said, “people were coming to me in tears, saying, 'You have no idea what this means to me, to be able to express this.' It’s been an amazing response.”
Patalinghug is a Baltimore-based priest who has focused his ministry on the intersection of food, family and faith, and he's used celebrity chefs to spread his message. His campaign, called Grace Before Meals, has led to a web series and cookbooks, all exploring how cooking and eating together strengthen relationships.
Last year, he formed the nonprofit Table Foundation to develop more projects and partnerships through the food world, and the Olive Mass emerged as a signature program.
The service follows the lines of the traditional Catholic liturgy, with readings selected with the hospitality field in mind. Archbishop Gregory Aymond will be the main celebrant, and Patalinghug will give the homily. This year’s Mass will be followed by a reception and a panel discussion among local chefs.
The Catholic church holds similar services for other professions. The Red Mass honors the legal profession, the Blue Mass is for law enforcement and the White Mass is dedicated to the medical field.
“It’s part of the tradition of the church, and especially the Catholic faith, to recognize professions that help to contribute to a just and good and noble society and that build our culture,” said Patanlinghug. “Food can do that for us.”
One of the Table Foundation's directors is Jenifer Besh, whose husband is the chef and restaurateur John Besh. The Beshs' involvement is one reason why the Olive Mass started in New Orleans.
The archdiocese has also embraced the new service.
"In New Orleans, coming around the table for a meal is about more than just sustenance. It is about sharing, tradition, and celebration of life and family,” Aymond said in a statement. “For us as a church, coming around the Lord’s table is a celebration of our faith and our universal church."
Patalinghug pointed out that the Olive Mass is also intended as a spiritual respite for people in the hospitality field.
“We know people in this profession can suffer from burnout and anxiety and unhealthy behaviors, so what kind of a society are we if we don’t serve them?” he said.
This year’s Olive Mass has added a few events after the service, beginning with a reception at the Pigeon and Prince, an events facility owned by the Besh Restaurant Group. After the reception, a group of local chefs will gather for a panel discussion on the inspirations and challenges of their field.
The panel includes Besh, Susan Spicer, Justin Devillier and the Rev. Ken Smith, the longtime chef at the Upperline who left that restaurant in 2010 to become a priest.
“I, as a priest, and we, as a church, want to celebrate these professionals so we can learn from them,” Patalinghug said. “The goal is to take this thing we have in common — food and service — and use it to build each other up, not tear each other down as I’ve unfortunately seen in other professions."
Also new this year is a call for nominations for two awards created in conjunction with the Olive Mass. The Olive Branch award is intended for chefs or restaurateurs who contribute greatly to the community outside of their restaurants. The Faithful Servant award is for otherwise unsung restaurant staff members who quietly make a difference in their restaurants.
Nominations are being collected online through thetablefoundation.org.
The Olive Mass
At St. Louis Cathedral, on Jackson Square
Monday, 10 a.m.
Followed by a reception at the Pigeon and Prince, 126 Camp St., 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m., and a chefs panel discussion, 1-2 p.m.
All events are free. Register at thetablefoundation.org.
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