Even though he hasn’t really lived in his hometown of New Orleans since he began the process of becoming a Franciscan priest more than two decades ago, Fernand Cheri III has never cut ties with the city.
For example, in the approximately three years he’s been the director of campus ministry at Quincy University in Illinois, he has accompanied students to perform service work for programs and places in the Archdiocese of New Orleans that were affected by the flooding of Hurricane Katrina, which in 2005 also destroyed the home of Cheri’s mother.
He also spent some time in 2010 and 2011 as the associate director of campus ministry at New Orleans’ Xavier University before he left for Quincy when the opportunity presented itself.
So, when Pope Francis appointed him to serve as the auxiliary bishop to New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond, Cheri couldn’t accept the responsibility fast enough.
“I never left New Orleans — it’s always (been) a part of me, wherever I go,” Cheri, 62, said at a media gathering Monday announcing him as Aymond’s new No. 2. “It’s going to be great to be back in the city and reconnect with and reinvigorate all the ways in which I grew up in the church.”
The announcement of Francis’ appointment of Cheri comes after New Orleans’ previous auxiliary bishop, Shelton Fabre, took on the duty of heading the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux in October. Fabre had succeeded Dominic Carmon, who retired in 2006 after 13 years as an auxiliary.
Like Fabre and Carmon, Cheri is African-American, and his appointment comes 50 years after that of Harold Robert Perry, the New Orleans auxiliary bishop who was the first black Catholic bishop in the 20th century.
That was all in the background as a New Orleans Archdiocese encompassing 4,200 square miles, more than 1.2 million people and 500,800 Catholics nabbed Cheri away from the Franciscan community he joined after a long theological education in his hometown.
Cheri attended St. John Vianney Preparatory Seminary in New Orleans. He then completed ecclesiastical studies at St. Joseph Seminary College in St. Benedict from 1970 to 1974 and Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans from 1974 to 1978. He received a master’s degree in theology from the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University and was ordained a priest in the city’s archdiocese in May 1978.
“You can’t get any more homegrown than that,” Aymond said Monday.
Cheri then served as the parochial vicar of Our Lady of Lourdes in New Orleans and St. Joseph the Worker in Marrero. He also was pastor of St. Joseph the Worker and St. Francis de Sales in New Orleans and administrator of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus.
Cheri entered the Order of Friars Minor’s Sacred Heart Province in St. Louis in 1992, and he was admitted as a Franciscan two years later.
Meanwhile, he worked as an archivist of black Catholic religious music, collecting 4,000 recordings and files of gospel sheet music and books. He edited and compiled seven- and nine-volume gospel music discographies in 1994 and 1997, respectively. He authored a number of articles and books about black Catholic liturgy and worship beginning in the late 1970s, and he founded multiple choirs for adults and children, all of which earned him a considerable level of recognition in African-American communities, Aymond said.
Baton Rouge Bishop Robert Muench said in a statement that Cheri “is gifted with significant talents” and “is a clergyman of integrity, a charismatic leader and an effective minister of the gospel.”
After becoming a Franciscan, Cheri’s path led him to Nashville, Tennessee, as a high school chaplain; East St. Louis, Illinois, as a teacher; and briefly back to New Orleans as Xavier’s associate director of campus ministry. He became the campus ministry director at Quincy and vicar of the Holy Cross Friary in 2011.
Cheri said his appointment from the Vatican was unexpected. He was preparing for the second semester of school at Quincy when he was suddenly informed his ordination as Aymond’s auxiliary bishop would be March 23. But it arrived at a perfect time because his 87-year-old mother recently fell and broke her arm, and he hoped her son’s good news would help her heal more quickly.
“It was a wonderful moment to be told that I was appointed,” Cheri said. “My mind was totally on work (at Quincy), so it was a big surprise.”